Chelsea Follett speaks to Gret Gyler, the founder and CEO of DonorSee, about his private-sector alternative to the traditional foreign aid model.
Gret Glyer: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 27 Transcript
The full conversation between Gret Glyer and Chelsea Follett can be found here. The transcript is below.
Chelsea Follett: Joining me today is entrepreneur Gret Glyer. He is the founder and CEO of DonorSee, an international charitable giving platform, first launched in 2016, that lets donors see the difference they make. Think Uber for a global charity fundraising. DonorSee has raised more than a million dollars for those in extreme poverty, has been featured by National Review, USA Today, NBC, ABC, and the Huffington Post, among others, and has been widely heralded as a dynamic private sector alternative to some of the problems in the traditional foreign aid model.
Chelsea Follett: Gret was inspired to start DonorSee by his experience as an on the ground aid worker in Malawi, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, and he is also the author of the book, “If The Poor Were Next Door: How moving to the poorest country in the world inspired a mission to transform charity.” Gret, how are you doing?
Gret Glyer: I’m doing great. Happy to be here. Thanks, Chelsea.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you so much for joining me. Before we get into DonorSee and talking about what that is, let’s talk about your experience that inspired it. You were living a comfortable life in an affluent neighborhood in Northern Virginia, so one of the nicer areas in the wealthiest country in the world, and you ended up in Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region of the world. And even within that, one of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi, which you say you actually hadn’t even heard of for much of your life. So what led you to Malawi?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, that’s a good preface. I spent… Growing up, I went to private school and I was driving… My parents got me a used Dodge Stratus when I was in high school and I thought I was poor because my friends were driving Mercedes-Benz, you know there are teenagers driving Mercedes-Benz or driving like these nice SUVs, and I was driving just my Dodge Stratus a few years old and so I thought I was a poor person. And then I kinda continued through life. I went to college. I went… I spent a year in the corporate world and the corporate world was great. I was told that I would be fast tracked. I was promoted very quickly, and it seemed like a really good opportunity for me, but I just couldn’t see myself continuing down that path for another 20 years. I just thought if I’m doing this for the next 20 years of my life, I’m gonna have a complete lack of purpose and meaning in my life. And so I wanted to do something that was in… I wanted to essentially blow up my life. I wanted to do something that was just so radical that it would reset kind of the trajectory of my life so I could see if I could find some meaning and purpose. I was really desperate to find that, and that’s why I quit my job, moved to Malawi.
Gret Glyer: The year I moved to Malawi was 2013. It was ranked as the poorest country in the world in 2013. And that’s when my definitions of poverty and wealth were massively reframed when I moved to Malawi for the first time.
Chelsea Follett: Right, when you arrived in Malawi, you witnessed a level of poverty that most people can’t even imagine. You went from one of the wealthiest areas of the world to an area where some people live on only a dollar a day. Can you sketch out some anecdotes to illustrate just how much poverty still exists?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, it’s shocking. It’s almost impossible to convey through words or even through video sometimes, it’s so, so difficult. You feel like you’re on… You feel like you’re just almost on a different planet because the level of… You just can’t imagine that the level of poverty is what it is. I personally knew people who were living off of 30 cents a day, 50 cents a day. I still am good friends with a lot of these people, even though they’re so poor, they oftentimes will have some access to cell phones and stuff like that so I can WhatsApp with them. But yeah, it’s just a very different level.
Gret Glyer: When I was over there, I think the very first most shocking story was, there was this little girl, her name was Emily, and I would go into a village every single Friday with a kind of a group of my friends and a group of Malawians that I knew, and we would just hang out in the village, hang out with the people there. I’d play soccer with the kids there, it was really fun. There’s this little girl on the sideline, she’s maybe 5 or 7 years old. She’s wearing this purple dress, and she was like rooting for everyone. She’s such a like an adorable little girl, and we found out that she was an orphan and the story about how she became orphan is essentially her mother got sick and her mother needed to go to the hospital, but the hospital bill was $20 and she didn’t have $20. When you’re living off of a dollar a day, that’s about $30 a month, and the majority of that is on food and it’s not even enough food to provide your basic sustenance, so she didn’t have $20.
Gret Glyer: And because of that, someone actually sent an email to someone in the States saying, “We have this situation, this person needs $20, would you mind providing the $20 so she can go to the hospital?” Understandably, the guy in the States thought maybe it was a scam, you know, didn’t wanna donate it and about six months later, that guy who was emailed happened to be on a mission trip in Malawi. He was getting, him and his recruit group was getting a tour of the village that Emily’s mom lived in, and they saw Emily’s mom. She had not been treated in six months. She was doing so bad, it just was such a terrible situation, so their entire two-week trip was completely… They decided, Okay, for the next two weeks, we’re gonna get rid of all of our plans and we are going to help this woman because she’s so sick. So they spent two weeks, they got her a nice mattress, they took her to the hospital. They took her to… They got her all the food and medicine that she needed, and then they, after two weeks, they had done everything they could for her, they hopped on a plane, they got back home, and within 24 hours, Emily’s mom passed away. So it was too late.
Gret Glyer: It was $20 would have solved the whole problem six months earlier, but at that point she had… The situation was so bad that it was too late, and so Emily… And her father was gone, her mother had passed away, and so Emily was an orphan and she was being taken care of in this village by her grandmother, and it was literally $20 that was the life or death difference for this woman. To me, that’s like the one that really stuck home with me, and the one I really hang on to is that we still live in the world where $20 is the difference between life and death for certain people.
Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. I think many people lack that global perspective when it comes to poverty and also historical perspective. It’s hard to imagine now, but that kind of absolute poverty that you were witnessing, that was the baseline condition for the majority of humanity for most of history. For centuries and centuries day-to-day life was very similar, most people survived, if they did survive, as subsistence farmers. They were very poor, average income was basically flat throughout much of history. Then you got the Industrial Revolution, world GDP suddenly skyrocketing, but that kind of economic prosperity is a relatively recent innovation in human history. And today, even while poverty is at historic lows, that kind of poverty does still exist in some places, and some of the efforts to change it are tragically ineffective. Returning to your experience in Malawi, could you talk about how it not only opened your eyes to the problem of poverty and how extreme poverty can be, but also how you saw some of the inefficiencies, the bureaucratic inertia, a lack of impact and other problems plaguing the traditional foreign aid apparatus.
Gret Glyer: Yeah, this is one of the great tragedies of our modern era, is the inefficiencies in the charity sector or the foreign aid sector, or wherever money is flowing to supposedly help impoverished people, but it’s not being applied effectively. It’s one of the great tragedies of our modern times because amazing progress has been made. Like you said, over the last 100 years, the amount of people who have access to wealth and opportunity has completely sky-rocketed, there’s a lot of great market dynamics that have resulted in that, and then there’s still a lot of people who are living in abject poverty that you just can’t even… You literally cannot imagine it until you go and meet these people, you’re face-to-face with them and you hear their stories, and you sit with them in their mud huts or whatever it is, wherever it is that they’re living. You just can’t imagine how poor certain people are. When I was in Malawi specifically I remember there was this one road, and on the road, there was a series of charity offices, and the offices, they were all air conditioned, they all had private security, they all had nice SUVs out front and they were well-funded, big name brand charities that you’ve probably heard of before, all kind of in this same row, but they all kind of hung out on their respective compounds and they weren’t spending a lot of time in the… They weren’t actually saying time with people living in poverty.
Gret Glyer: They would go do their quarterly visit or whatever it was, so that they could take pictures, but there wasn’t a lot of development happening. And the thing that is… I think I wanna emphasize, it’s a complex issue, on the one hand, you have just a lot of… Poverty is a very, very, very complex issue and then it’s multi-faceted, and you need a lot of different things to go right for poverty to be alleviated. So on the one hand, some of these charities, it’s not all mal intents, some of it is inability to do anything in the situation, but there’s just not enough transparency, not enough accountability to bring some of that stuff to light, so it is a big problem. It’s one of the great tragedies of our modern era, it’s one of the things that we’re extremely passionate about fixing at DonorSee.
Chelsea Follett: Right. To expand on that, you’ve been critical of what you call big aid, some of those traditional charities. You’ve said in the past, for example, “Big aid organizations are outmoded, they take a huge chunk of every donation for administration, much higher commissions than any private sector agency and they’re often better at paying their staff and that rewarding donors or designing truly impactful programs, In fact, the way the system is set up right now, you’ve said big aid organizations are incentivized to keep the poor in poverty and reliance on the aid, because if these organizations do a better job, they are essentially putting themselves out of work.” And you’ve also said in the past, when describing so-called big aid, some of these large bureaucratic organizations, again, that they should “be embarrassed of how ineffective they are, by how much they spend on infrastructure instead of projects.” So why do you believe that funding projects, immediate needs of individuals, is more valuable than investment in infrastructure guided by technocrats? Why are projects more effective than infrastructure?
Gret Glyer: Well, it’s more about the empowerment of the local people to implement the projects effectively, that’s really the most important thing, what you don’t wanna happen, what you don’t wanna have happen is you don’t want someone in the air condition office on the other side of the planet deciding what is being implemented in a country, in a culture that they have no idea what is going on in there. So one of the things that we do at DonorSee is we lean heavily on the local individuals who have local relationships, who understand the opportunities for impact, and they also understand the opportunities for pitfalls, there’s a lot of potential corruption, there’s a lot of things potentially for fraud, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong, and what we do is we empower the local individuals, and then we just put cameras everywhere, and we want to make sure that donated money is delivered effectively and in a way that honors donor intent, but also that there’s a lot of transparency. And sometimes things don’t go right, and people in organizations should be honest about that, and that’s not actually the norm for a lot of these large organizations, they know that things don’t go right, but they don’t report it to donors because it’s an awkward conversation.
Gret Glyer: I’m not even saying I blame them, I’m saying it’s a tough dynamic to navigate, but people… That’s what donors deserve, they deserve to have full transparency about how their money was used, even in the instances where sometimes it’s not used effectively. And I think donors… At DonorSee we always do our best to report when things don’t go right, or if things… If a situation works out differently than we had hoped it would, and from our experience, donors really value that, they actually trust us more because we tell them when things don’t go well, and then they wanna give through us ’cause they know good or bad, we’re gonna let them know how it goes.
Chelsea Follett: Right, that kind of decentralized model where you’re getting information on the ground, you’re able to respond to people’s needs, definitely sounds better than a technocrat miles away ordering supplies that might not be needed. I’ve heard you… I’ve heard you talk about seeing an entire store room filled with shoes that were delivered to help the poor, but they were never actually distributed because it turns out those shoes, that was not what was needed, but it was divorced from those sorts of market signals. And in other interviews, I’ve seen you cite the book “When Helping Hurts” and the documentary “Poverty, Inc.” as influences on your thinking and summaries of some of the problems that you witnessed in your work in Malawi and Haiti and elsewhere about the ways in which philanthropic enterprises are sometimes run.
Chelsea Follett: I would add to that, for people who are interested in learning more about this topic, William Easterly’s “The Tyranny of Experts,” “The Poverty of Development Economics” by Deepak Lal, and “Dissent on Development” by Peter Bauer. It’s older, but it’s a good book. And for more uplifting view of what’s going right instead of just what’s going wrong when it comes to economic development around the world, my colleague Marian Tupy’s book “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting” has some beautiful data on some of the ways in which poverty is declining in many places and in the world on average as a whole. And of course on HumanProgress.org we try to analyze the causes of lasting prosperity and economic development and the best policies and institutions to reduce poverty. Are there any other resources that you would recommend for people who want to learn more about this?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, absolutely, there’s one that I would… So like, a little bit of a less academic one, but I think really helps people… Like I said, it’s almost impossible to understand poverty, it’s really difficult if I’m here in my air conditioned office talking through the internet to you in your air conditioned office, and most of the people watching this or listening to this, that’s gonna be a normal experience for them, but how do you understand the experience of someone who lives off of a dollar a day, who doesn’t have three square meals a day, who doesn’t have a refrigerator, who doesn’t have a kitchen, who has… Malawi they have the rainy season, they have the dry season, then they have what’s called the hungry season. One of their seasons is literally called The Hungry season, ’cause that’s when the crops are not quite ready to be harvested yet, and so a lot of people are hungry during that time and the crime rate goes up, so how do you understand that? How do you understand that?
Gret Glyer: So I always point people to a really great movie that was… That’s on Netflix, it’s called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and it’s actually of a boy in Malawi, and I’ll like, people watch it, but it’s about a boy from a very rural village who found… This is a true story, found a textbook and was able to do some cool things because he found the textbook and was just showed a lot of ingenuity. And that boy, ended up attending the same school that I taught at for a year in Malawi, not at the same time, but just kind of an interesting personal overlap between me and that boy, but it’s a really… The movie does an incredible job of helping you feel like you… Helping you feel the pain and the difficulty that they go through. It’s very, very well done. So I highly encourage people to watch The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and there’s a book that accompanies it as well.
Chelsea Follett: So those problems and the depths of poverty inspired DonorSee, and you sort of touched upon this, but you were also inspired by your experiences, fundraising for a girls’ school in rural Malawi. There’s a great mini-documentary about this on your website, but for those who are unfamiliar with the story, could you walk us through it and how that experience led you to getting the idea for DonorSee?
Gret Glyer: Definitely, so when I first moved to Malawi, I actually… My job there was, I was a teacher at an international school, so I was teaching pre-Calculus and Algebra 2, that was my foot in the door to move to a country like Malawi, and it was a great opportunity for me, but what I wanted to do was get more involved in more humanitarian efforts, I was teaching at this international school, but then it was like I’m teaching the 1%, so I wanted to know what I could do to get involved with what some people refer to as the bottom billion, like the people who really are at the… In the most vulnerable positions on our entire planet. So I started doing these little crowdfunding projects, so I started off with little with… I think the first… One of the first ones was like $50 to provide a baby with formula milk, and I would post it on YouTube, and I have a WordPress website with a PayPal link and people would donate $50, and then they would… We would give the baby formula milk and they could see the baby getting nursed back to health, and then we did $300 to provide a family with a pigsty, which that provides a sustained source of income for the family, it gives them the ability to breed the pigs and raise the piglets.
Gret Glyer: And it’s a great way to provide that kind of sustained development, and it just got bigger and bigger, so then I remember thinking, Let me do something really crazy, I’m gonna raise $9000 to provide mosquito net for every person in this village and the mosquito net fundraiser… So the stat there is, whenever a village is covered in mosquito net, whenever 70% of the village sleeps under a mosquito net, the malaria rate in that village goes down by 90%, Malaria’s a huge problem in the developing world, and you’re saving lives by giving out these nets and training people on how to sleep under them, so that… So then, and it just… The projects kept getting funded, so then I decided, Well, what’s like… What’s something else I’m really passionate about that could make a really big lasting impact, so I actually wanted to build a clinic, and I thought building a maternity clinic would be a really cool way to kind of do the next net fundraiser. And so I started talking to different local Malawians and they all told me, it’s not a good idea.
Gret Glyer: As nice as it is, what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna build a clinic, but then you’re gonna have to fund the staffing and you’re gonna have to fund just the ongoing expenses and it’s gonna turn to an empty building within three or four years. We’ve seen it happen 100 times. So I was really resistant to their feedback because I was so bullish, I’m making this clinic, so I just really wanted to make it happen, but eventually they persuaded me that it would be better… I started asking all the Malawians again, it’s so important to talk to the local people to understand, they know what they need. And I got basically a unanimous, everyone unanimously told me what we need is Girls Education, they all know that they need to educate women and educate young girls in the country, ’cause there’s a massive gender disparity gap in Malawi.
Gret Glyer: So I put together a fundraiser. I worked with a local woman named Tia, who was the… It was her, she been dreaming of building the school for seven years, she had all of the architecture plans, all of the curriculum, everything was ready to go, she just needed $100,000 to built the school, and so over the course of a few months we put together a fundraiser, and piece by piece, we built this… First we fundraised the… Excavated the ground, then the foundation and the walls and the roof, and it just kept going until we had the whole entire building, and there were 120 girls that attended that first year, and there’s over 310 in attendance today, it’s a fully sustainable girls school, we don’t have to provide any ongoing expenses because we have tuition that comes from half the students and the other half of the students are vulnerable girls.
Gret Glyer: It’s like an amazing thing that was done, and I was just there last October to go visit it, and it’s like every year I go there, they add to it and they do cool things with it, and there’s these girls being educated, and I think the most recent class had a 70% attendance rate in college, which is these are girls from very rural areas, their parents don’t even know to read and they’re getting a college education now so it’s an amazing thing that happened, and I was a part of it, but there was a lot of people who were a part of it that made it happens. It’s a really cool initiative.
Chelsea Follett: That’s remarkable. You’ve already touched on this, but how is DonorSee working to change the status quo with a market solution to “transform charity” as the subtitle of your book puts it? How exactly does the platform work for people who aren’t familiar with it?
Gret Glyer: So the platform really focuses on the donor experience, it’s a minor innovation, but it’s a really important one to focus on making sure that the donors are having a good experience when they donate. I always say you can have a bunch of guilty depressed people donating, but at the end of the day, those people are gonna give one time and they’re gonna disappear, what you want is people who have satisfying giving experiences so that they get more invested, they get more involved, they give more often, they tell their friends about the opportunity to give. So we’re obsessed with the donor experience at DonorSee, and what are a few of the innovations that we have is whenever you give you can go to donorsee.com, you can pick up the project and anyone who… Any project that you pick out, you get to see exactly who you’re helping, your donation goes to that person, and then you get a video update showing you how your donation helped.
Gret Glyer: And there’s some really incredible… If you follow our TikTok or Instagram, we have a TikTok video that’s going viral right now, has a million views of a man who’s getting a wheelchair, we have a lot of these kind of really powerful, emotionally impactful stories, and the reason they’re emotionally impactful is because they are… The person receiving the charity, receiving the gifts, they’re so happy to get those to get the benefit of the wheelchair, or the hearing aids, or the glasses, or the school tuition, or the school uniform, or whatever it is that it is. And you get to see the difference that you make in that person’s life, and it’s amazing, and then we also have… For people who don’t wanna go to the trouble of picking out a the project, we also have an opportunity to give monthly. So this is one of my favorite things, especially we live in the DC area, so everyone’s busy, everyone’s got too much to do, and everyone wants their stuff automated, so you can go to donorsee.com/monthly, and you can sign up to give monthly.
Gret Glyer: And every month, like you could sign up to give $20 a month as an example, that’s a life or death difference for a lot of people, every month your $20 would go to a different project and then we’ll send you video updates every single month showing you how your $20 helped every single month, and it’s like an amazing… It’s an amazing thing to see. You think $20 doesn’t matter, because for you and me, and for most people watching this, $20 could disappear out of their bank account, they would have no clue, but for the people who are receiving it, and it is a massive, huge difference in their life. And you get to see it, and I believe that that kind of focusing on showing the donor the impact that they’re making. I believe that that’s gonna change the world.
Chelsea Follett: And you’ve built this platform, DonorSee, from the ground up and it has a staff of 10 or so, I think, and you’re expanding, you’re actually hiring a web developer, I believe, right now, and some other roles maybe. And it’s really a remarkable achievement, congratulations. And it wasn’t easy to get to that, to this point, correct? You faced a lot of challenges. In 2017, there was some press relating that the Peace Corps actually banned their volunteers from using DonorSee, citing federal regulations and threatened to actually fire any aid worker who used DonorSee. And there were numerous other challenges, anyone who hasn’t tried to start a business or a non-profit or any other kind of official organization probably doesn’t even realize how much red tape, how much bureaucracy there is involved with these things. Can you describe some of the legal and regulatory hoops that you had to jump through to bring DonorSee to the point where it is today?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, I’ll tell you the one that still makes… I even get emotional thinking about it makes me so mad, I cried the day it happened, and it’s such a personal thing to me, I really care about what we’re building here, I really care about our staff, I care about our team, I care about the people who are being helped, I care about our partners implementing stuff on the ground, and when we first started DonorSee we were actually an app for… A mobile app first platform, and so it was really great you could make a donation through the app and your donation would go to people and you get a video update. And this is all in real time. It was really wonderful. And then I think it was in 2017 or 2018, Apple, they wanted to launch their new Apple Pay product where you know it’s like their credit card processing product, and so because of that, they decided that charities had to use Apple Pay to process their donations. Well, because of the way our model works, we can’t use Apple Pay, we have to use Stripe because we get money directly to the individual organizations that are distributing the money, so we can’t use Apple Pay. We have had to use Stripe.
Gret Glyer: And so because of that, our mobile app, which again, I funded the first mobile app personally, and then I recruited some funding so I can build the mobile app. It was everything. Our iOS app was worth where 60% of our donation volume was going through, and overnight that disappeared sometime in 2017/2018. I cried, I was so upset. I couldn’t believe that Apple would do this. We appealed it, we talked to the press about, but they released an article on, I think December 23, everyone’s checked out when that happened, so yeah, that almost killed us, that set us back probably two or three years, it was terrible, and it’s one of those things where I still somehow through all of that, through how difficult that was, I really believe it’s gonna work out, if I just hang on and so I think that’s one of the things, if you really believe what you’re doing and you just hang on and find a way to do it, it probably will work out, and now we’re at this place where we have a little over 10 staff, we’re probably gonna be doubling that this year, and we’ve raised close to %5 million in funding for people.
Gret Glyer: And these are with very small projects, these are $200-$300 projects, so we just… We’ve been able to touch a lot of lives, we send over 27,000 videos to donors, these are like super happy videos, now we’ve got our TikTok is taking off, our Instagram is taking off. We got a lot good stuff happening. But that was a tough moment. And anyone who started anything knows that you go through those moments and they’re not fun.
Chelsea Follett: Yeah, your perseverance is a admirable and the issue with the Peace Corp must have been very difficult too, right? Because that’s one of the biggest… Possibly the biggest, I’m not sure, aid worker organizations, that was a lot of your potential base for people starting projects. I wasn’t able to find a lot in the media about how that situation resolved, but the fact that basically regulations prevented them from being able to adopt this app is, well ridiculous to me. What happened with that?
Gret Glyer: They’re still not able to do it. The only thing I think is gonna happen is I think it will get fixed, I don’t know how exactly, but I think it’s gonna get fixed. I think it will be inevitable at some point, you can’t just continue to not have transparency on your activities, and I just think that there’s gonna be a mounting pressure over time, so I think it will get fixed.
Chelsea Follett: I hope so as well. I think that it can take a while for the regulatory framework to catch up to new technology, startups like yours, and there’s also the possibility that maybe some of the more entrenched aid organizations feel threatened by a new innovation, a new model to do some of these things, perhaps. Switching gears a bit, could you tell me about DonorSee’s response to the pandemic? From the pandemic and the response to the pandemic, some of the global supply chain issues and so forth have been very devastating, especially to very poor areas of the world. And one thing you’ve been very vocal about has also been the effect of government lock-downs in Sub-Saharan Africa and other poor countries with regards to poverty and health. I’d be really interested in your thoughts on that as well as what DonorSee is doing to help with all of that.
Gret Glyer: This is one of the most frustrating things, I remember this is… I don’t cry off often… I know, it sounds like I cry all the time. I really don’t cry off often in this, I cried for this too, and I’m serious, it’s not like a common thing for me, but I remember the pandemic happened at the beginning, it was a very… Everyone like had no idea what was happening, and we thought that COVID had a 3% or 4% death rate, and it was spring super quick, it was just a really scary time for a lot of people, and it still ended up being very serious. But the response, I don’t even wanna get into the response in America and other developed countries, people can debate about that, that’s fine, I’m not even gonna weigh in on that, I don’t want that to be a distraction from… To me, what’s the more important point. The lock-downs that happened in certain countries like Uganda or South Africa or Sierra Leone, the lockdowns that happened in these countries were… I don’t even have words to describe how terrible they were then, this is not the laptop class, this is not people who can just hop on Zoom and continue their work, these are people who live hand-to-mouth and they lock them down.
Gret Glyer: So people who… The amount of money that they make in a day, a $1 a day $2 a day, that’s enough, that’s barely enough to feed them every single day for them and their families, and so to lock those people down, and tell them to stay inside, you can’t go into the city, you can’t go sell your wares wears, you can’t go harvest your fruits and vegetables, you can’t go do this, you can’t go to the market, they had bulldozers go to these markets and bulldoze peoples fruit stands and where they were selling their clothes and stuff like that, they bulldoze those areas to make sure that people weren’t congregating there, and that’s people’s entire livelihood. So it’s really interesting. I had this prediction that we would see this huge sky rocket in the malnutrition deaths for children under 5, for some reason, I don’t know, but for some reason, those numbers have still not come out from the year 2020, the number of children who have died from malnutrition I’ve been looking for it because I’ve been suspecting that the numbers are just terrible, and COVID is a terrible thing, and it really affects the elderly, but one of the things that the lock-downs in poor countries did is it really affected kids under 5.
Gret Glyer: And I just saw video after video after video after video of these kids who had been… Who were completely emaciated because they weren’t able to perform, their parents were in a position to perform their most basic jobs, and so sometimes if the mom is malnourished and she can’t feed her kid and then the kid gets malnourished, the kid’s a lot more vulnerable. It was a terrible, terrible situation. We raised probably about $50,000 or $60,000 just for a clinic in Sierra Leone, we raised another several tens of thousands of dollars for a clinic in Liberia, and these clinics were completely overrun with malnourished children. It started being with two or three times the normal rate because of the lockdown. It was a terrible, terrible thing that has still basically gone under the radar, people aren’t talking about it.
Gret Glyer: And it’s just a weird, strange thing. Anyways, I remember… I kind of had a feeling that this was starting to happen. And I remember kind of getting some of the videos and I remember being on a walk with my wife, and feeling like… Feeling so powerless because I’m like, “This is so unjust.” But I it was like, there’s only so much I can do. This is a whole global reaction, a whole global phenomenon. I tried going to the press, I tried posting it on social media. It wasn’t a narrative that people were interested in at the time, unfortunately. And I think eventually, we’ll look back on it as one of the most terrible things from that period.
Chelsea Follett: You can actually see in global development data, what data we do have, obviously… on some indicators, we don’t have new data yet to reflect what happened with the pandemic. But you can see in many cases, that trends that were headed in a positive direction like child mortality, declining hunger, declining maternal mortality rates and so forth, there was a reversal, that will hopefully… Hopefully things will return back to the positive trends. You can see also, if you look at data during the 1918 flu pandemic, the entire world, their life expectancy was rising and rising. And then suddenly, there was this huge dip in that year, but it recovered very quickly. So that was the silver lining, at least. So, yes, I hope so as well. And of course, it’s not just the pandemic, there are also supply chain issues related to it, and there were policy responses, but moving to different and more current events… the war in Ukraine. DonorSee has been doing I know some work with Ukraine delivering supplies there and so forth, some other projects, but you’ve also been commenting publicly on the effects on Sub-Saharan Africa’s food supply from the war in Ukraine, which, of course, is a major wheat provider for much of the world. Can you walk us through that?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, definitely. So the war in Ukraine is one of those things that is unimaginable tragedy, most of us were so shocked by what happened when we first saw Russia taking tanks down the streets of Ukraine, you just… And missiles going into residential buildings. It’s hard for us to comprehend what’s going on. We have a lot of really, really great contacts on the ground in Ukraine. In fact, some of our staff was on the ground in Ukraine at the beginning of the war. And so it’s, it was… This is almost like a very personal thing to us. And we know people who live there, we know people who are actively there right now doing relief work, who we’re providing funds for and doing fundraising for them. So we know… We understand it very well. And it is just a terrible thing. At DonorSee we care about the helping the most vulnerable people in the world and right now, Ukrainians fit that category. And it’s very, very sad to say that. It was such a success story in so many ways up until the war happened.
Gret Glyer: And then yeah, I think one of the second order effects that is we still don’t know how bad it’s gonna be, but there are reliable predictions from experts across the political spectrum who are pointing out that wheat production, both Russia and both Ukraine are… They represent over 80% of the wheat production that Sub-Saharan Africa benefits from. And in fact, Malawi, it’s about 100%. It’s crazy, about 100% of the wheat that Malawi gets is from Russia and Ukraine. And when you have these countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, they’re already at a calorie deficit because of the pandemic. I was there in Malawi recently, just last year, and the people living in these more impoverished areas, they were hit very, very, very hard. So they’re already kind of living in at a calorie deficit, they’re already living below what would be a healthy standard, which causes second order illnesses.
Gret Glyer: And now with the wheat production drying up for them, that’s not gonna take effect for a few months, but it’s gonna hit around the same time that the hungry season hits. And some people are projecting about 800,000 deaths from this, which again, is one of the things is not even in the news, people aren’t talking about it. It’s outside of the periphery of the normal person living in the developed world. The one thing I’m hoping that we can do is at least provide visibility over what’s happening so that people can see what’s going on and then can respond and it’s gonna take a large global response to address the tidal wave of malnutrition that these countries are being faced with.
Chelsea Follett: Well, you’re certainly well positioned to help the visibility given that your platform is based around videos in large part. How is… You talked about this a bit, but how exactly is DonorSee working to enhance accountability and transparency? And how does… What is the key difference that contrasts with some of the older, larger, more technocratic philanthropic enterprises out there?
Gret Glyer: I think the main innovation is the marketplace dynamics. Most of the time when you build an organization, you have one kind of central governing body. And then as the organization gets bigger, it becomes more bureaucratic, hard to manage the on the ground individuals in order to apply aid effectively. It just gets… The bigger it gets, the more ineffective it gets. And we’ve just seen that happen over and over again. It’s almost never doesn’t happen. With us we rely heavily on these marketplace dynamics. We lean heavily into the marketplace dynamics. I’m a big believer, we’ve seen how marketplace dynamics have revolutionized other industries. Uber was a revolution in the transportation industry. Airbnb has been a revolution in the hospitality industry. And we believe that DonorSee, and our marketplace dynamics will be a revolution in the charity sector as well. And the reason for that is we have charities all over the world. We’ve partnered with over 100 charities and they are in their respective countries. Donors are able to select who they give their donations to. And then they’re also able to provide feedback and reviews on all of the donations that they give.
Gret Glyer: And then the… The organizations are subject to accountability, regular reviews. And then what we try and do in the same way where it would be tough for Uber to manage all of the drivers that they have. What they do is they rely on the crowd to provide the feedback on how well people are driving, and then you can know who are the trusted people and who are not. We rely heavily on the crowd as well for our trust mechanisms. And then there’s also a lot of great third-party mechanisms out there like Charity Navigator and Guide Star that we also rely on to make sure that people we are bringing on to our platform are highly vetted. So I think the biggest thing is with marketplace dynamics, the beautiful thing about it with… So I’ll just start with Uber. With Uber, the bigger that Uber gets, the more drivers you get, the more passengers you get into that ecosystem in one city, the faster the pick-up times get and the lower the cost gets, and the more the drivers are able to make a living out of being an Uber driver. With DonorSee, it’s very similar, at DonorSee you get to… The more donors in the ecosystem, the more partners in the ecosystem it creates this virtuous cycle, so literally, as we get bigger our product and what we offer to donors and what we offer partners, it gets better over time, so that’s the biggest innovation, it’s the marketplace dynamics.
Chelsea Follett: Right, so getting bigger can create more inefficiencies if there isn’t that market information, if it’s very centralized, but in a more market-based structure like yours getting bigger can actually increase efficiencies and so forth.
Gret Glyer: As we get bigger our project quality is gonna get better, the video updates that we provide are gonna become more emotionally compelling, the trust that people have with giving their dollars is gonna get better every single day. We’ve already seen this happen at the scale that we’re at, going from 20 partners to 100 partners, as we go from 100 to 1000, and then 10,000, then 100,000, it’s only gonna get better and better over time. So it’s guaranteed to happen.
Chelsea Follett: Can you talk a little bit about some of that recent growth that you’ve had. Obviously, there’s been a lot of change since you began in 2016, you used to partner with individual aid workers, and now you have many more partners. It’s really expanded. Can you talk about some of that growth?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, you know it’s kind of interesting, like I said. Back in 2017, that was when we kinda got hit with the Apple situation, that was a major, major set back. At that time it was… We had a very, very lean staff. And so for several years, we’re just trying… It was literally survival mode, like, I believe this will work out, we have this very, very basic staff that we’re working with, but around 2019, we really kind of figured out exactly our model. We figured out what are the things that donors really value, they value trust, they value the connection that they have with the people that they’re helping, they value the immediacy. Like DonorSee, is the only place where all of the feedback that you’re getting is real time like when you give to someone who needs surgery, that person needs the surgery right now, and if they don’t get the donation, they won’t get surgery, and if they do get the donation they’ll thank you for providing the surgery. So it’s all real time, and that’s something that donors really like.
Gret Glyer: So kind of figuring out those dynamics, all of that stuff started to click around the end of 2019. We hired kind of a very lean staff before then, we hired our first full-time employee at the beginning of 2020, except myself, and then we just started adding staff since then steadily as we’ve grown, and it’s been really fun, and we’re at this place where we have our staff. We just all got together actually here in DC, we flew all of our European staff in, our Californian staff, we flew ’em all into DC last week, so we all got to hang out with each other, and there’s a real… We feel like there’s this real energy right now about… Almost like the calm before the storm. We really have a lot of good things that are happening all at the same time and it’s all kind of coming together. So we’re at this just very exciting moment, and I’m just very excited about it.
Chelsea Follett: You’ve said in a recent social media post, “Most people take modern civilization for granted because it’s all they’ve ever known, which is why one of the fastest ways to be happier is to simply gain perspective. Hence, DonorSee.” And that mission that you described there in that quote of helping people to gain perspective regarding modern prosperity is very near and dear to my heart and the hearts of everyone on the Human Progress team as well. How do you think DonorSee is helping people to gain perspective?
Gret Glyer: Yeah, I think what we do is we just show the ways that very small amounts of money make an enormous impact like what… The meaning it provides to other people around the world. Like I mentioned earlier, we have this TikTok video that’s going viral, it’s at about a million views right now, and it’s of a man getting a wheelchair, it costs about $360 for this man to get a wheelchair, and the reason that video is going viral is ’cause his reaction is so ecstatic and so pure, it’s so genuine. This guy’s thrills, a older man and he’s being carted around his village with a wheelchair, and he’s like waving at everyone, he’s happy and his villagers are cheering them on. It’s just a very, very viscerally gratifying video that there’s a reason it’s going viral, but when you read the comments, I think there’s about 2000 comments that have been left on this one video, we have 27,000 of these videos on our platform, every time you give you get one of these videos, but this one video is really resonating with people.
Gret Glyer: We have, we have about 2000 comments. If you read the comments, almost all of the comments are people saying, “I’m balling my eyes out right now, I’m never gonna take anything for granted again, I’m gonna go walk around my block because I just feel so grateful for all I have and for my ability to walk.” And it’s giving people this level of perspective that is… It wasn’t even possible before because there wasn’t the proliferation of smartphones before, there wasn’t the proliferation of video editing software before, but now we are at this really unique moment in history, literally in the history of the world were at this very unique moment where Sub-Saharan Africa is coming online, people have smartphones even in these rural villages, and we’re able to get an insight into these places in a way that we never could before. And 10 years ago, there were no cell phones in these villages, and then 50 years ago, people didn’t even know these places existed in many parts of the world, so now it’s like we’re at this really unique… We’re just at this very unique moment where I think there’s gonna be this almost like global awakening of the various different degrees of lifestyles that people on the planet that we share live in.
Chelsea Follett: I think that’s a great point that technology can help people in the poor countries as the technology spreads, but also it can help people in the rich countries to appreciate modern prosperity and that that is not necessarily the default or the norm, that terrible poverty still exists… and hopefully also that will cause people in appreciating prosperity to become curious about what are the causes or drivers of prosperity and effective ways to combat poverty. So thank you so much for speaking with me. Gret, this has been really enjoyable. And if you enjoyed this podcast, please check out Gret’s book, “If The Poor Were Next Door: How moving to the poorest country in the world inspired a mission to transform charity.” And check out DonorSee.
Gret Glyer: Thank you, Chelsea. It was a pleasure being here.