“Money doesn’t solve problems. People do!” says Kate Roberts, co-founder of the Maverick Collective, an organization that aims to redefine what it means to be a philanthropist.



Kate Roberts, Co-Founder of Maverick Collective

In this interview from The Business of Giving, Ms. Roberts explains how Maverick Collective members invest a minimum of $1 million over three years to pilot an innovative solution for girls and women in the developing world. The organization, co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, is an initiative of Population Services International (PSI).

The following is a conversation between Kate Roberts, Co-Founder of The Maverick Collective and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving, on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Denver: With the constant barrage of messages, tweets, ads, Facebook posts and the rest, it is extremely difficult for any new initiative to break through and capture people’s attention. But then along comes The Maverick Collective, which has quickly become a hot topic in the world of philanthropy….. and beyond. So it’s a great pleasure to have with us this evening its co-founder, Kate Roberts. Good evening, Kate, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Kate: Good evening! It’s great to be here.

Denver: The Maverick Collective, which is still quite young, has really captured many people’s imagination. What is it?  And where did the spark of this idea come from?

Kate: The spark of it came from being so impressed with watching philanthropists, such as Melinda Gates, who serves as our co-chair. Coming to the realization that she’s leaving so many of her own resources on the table — and having the smarts, as well as money, to create social change. So, personally, I was really inspired by her journey and the great work that she was doing at the foundation. She then started to mobilize billions of dollars for the issue of family planning. So, that really led us to believe that there is an incredible platform for other like-minded, bold women who really do want to use their skills, their resources and their voice to create change…. rather than just writing a check. Go beyond the check…really get involved and amplify your impact as a philanthropist. And then, of course, the sustainable development goals were announced–very aggressive goals.

Denver: Right.

Kate: And at the heart of all philanthropy–like wealth creation–it is all about impact.  If we’re going to achieve these goals, we need to take an approach where everybody is engaged — Philanthropists, NGOs, governments, the  private sector, the public sector– all effectively working together to achieve these goals.

Denver: And you have another co-chair as well, correct?

Kate: We do. The crown princess of Norway, Mette-Marit. She’s actually the co-founder with me.

Denver: There has been a lot of conversation around girls’ education, women’s empowerment, health issues–which I know that you’re focused on– in the last couple of years. Would it be fair to say that the funding has failed to keep up with the rhetoric?

Kate: It is fair to say. Two percent of U.S. government funding goes to these issues, which I think is a fact that most people don’t know. And, again, in order to achieve these aggressive goals we need to be creative, disruptive.   And we need to redefine what it means to be a philanthropist. Our initiative is really all about ending extreme poverty in our lifetime. That’s ambitious. We want to do it by really focusing on girls and women. And if we do not lift girls and women out of poverty, we will never break that cycle.

So, at the heart of all of this is health…and most of the big problems are preventable. But we really need to innovate around these different health areas in order to identify solutions, pilot them, measure them, and then leverage what we know with our traditional partners–like the U.S. government–to scale these solutions across the world.

“Sexual reproductive health, family planning, teen pregnancy prevention…we have to get girls in school. And being pregnant by the time you’re 12– which is happening a lot around the world– is something that we absolutely need to prevent…”

Denver: Well as you know, Kate, there are a lot of health problems and challenges  in the world facing girls and women. How do you go about deciding which pilot projects you’re going to focus on?  And what countries are going to do them in?

Kate: Well, first of all, I should say that women make up 70% of the world’s poor, so it’s disproportional. And then you look at what are the pressing issues. What is the ecosystem of a woman? And where do we need to focus? So, we’ve broken the focus impact areas into six focus categories.

Sanitation. Most women are going outside to defecate– which leads to all sorts of disease. But then, it also leads to gender-based violence: men prey on women at dusk when they go outside. So it’s all very much linked–gender-based violence, sanitation.

Then, there are some 250 million women out there who want access to family planning and contraception, and they don’t have it. Sexual reproductive health, family planning, teen pregnancy prevention…we have to get girls in school. And being pregnant by the time you’re 12–which is happening a lot around the world–is something that we absolutely need to prevent in order to keep our girls in school.

Maternal Health. 500,000 women die in childbirth each year, and the cost to the economy–just the sheer opportunity that we have when we invest in women… especially around childbirth.  It will strengthen local communities when you strengthen nations… And then, of course, you empower the world. So there is an economic business sense to it  as well–maternal and child health.

Right now, we’re grappling with Zika, right? We’re all scared of the mosquito.

It used to be about malaria. We’ve eliminated malaria in this country. I think we’re on a fast track to end malaria around the world. It’s simple solutions, right? Putting an insecticide- treated net over a bed which costs about $5. We tested that out. Now, we cover the world in bed nets. So, the end of malaria is in sight.

Of course, Zika is now a new challenge that we have to focus on.  It affects women and their maternity. So, we choose our projects carefully–in partnership with others where we know there is donor interest.  But where there is interest?  We need to fan the flames of an intervention where we believe we can have huge impact. And then once we do, we go back to our traditional partners to scale across the world.

Denver: Right. So, Kate, how does The Maverick Collective work? You and Melinda Gates, and the Crown Princess of Norway–you have gone out and enlisted 14 founding philanthropists. What is the criteria to become a member? What are the expectations and responsibilities that you have to one another?

Kate: Yes. We’re all bold women right now. I say “right now” because very soon, we’ll be inviting men into our group. We all share a common passion for making this world a better place for girls and women We share an interest in global developments, smart global development, strategic global development, and the ability to listen. We have a 3-year partnership together where we really involve the philanthropist — from the very beginning in co-designing the intervention. We choose the right country to do that– and one where we believe we can have the most impact. So that could be in India, or it could be in Guatemala or Botswana. We stretch across 65 countries across the world.

And there is a financial aspect to it. It costs about a million dollars over three years to really have the impact on the ground…and I would say, the sort of ambition to disrupt somewhat. We are changing the way that philanthropy is being done. We’re really turning it on its head. This is not a typical NGO-donor relationship. It’s okay to fail, and transparency is really, really important. We’re transparent with our members, and they get back to us. It’s an open relationship of transparency.

Denver: When you approach these women, you told them you want them to be deeply engaged in these projects–as you just said a moment ago–to co-design these projects. Were any of them skeptical?  Did any of them think that this was just a strategy for you to be able to get them to write a check, and that’s what you really wanted?

Kate: Oh yes! All the time. And I kept saying “No, I promise you. This is how we do it.” And I think if you would have any of these incredible ladies on the show, they will tell you the same thing. They have been told in the past, “Oh, join our board. We want your opinion.” Then they joined the board and realized that they just want the check.

Denver: They want the check.

Kate: And look, people solve problems; money doesn’t. Money is important, but we are really interested in the other resources that a philanthropist brings to the table. Not just money. And I can give you an example.

Pam Scott is a Human-Centered Design champion and specialist. And she’s really helped us to rethink how we design programs. Her initiative is in Tanzania. She is focused on teen pregnancy prevention, and she was out there with a whole team of experts in design. And we really explored together how we could be more effective in designing these programs. And she was leading it…we weren’t. You know, we’re the public health experts. She’s not a public health expert. So, it was a good marriage of talent and resources. And now the program has developed into a three country project across Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria. And in partnership with Gates and SIF, it’s now a $13 million intervention focused on teen pregnancy and human centered design.

“We choose our members. Not everyone is right for this. And we’re not right for everyone. But we’re strategic. We’re only interested in doing things that we can measure. And we’re only interested in doing things that we can really scale. We take a business approach to how we develop these interventions, and also how we develop our members.”

Denver: Do you have to wait to be invited to join The Maverick Collective? Or,  if somebody was interested, can they contact you?

Kate: They can contact us, probably best through the website maverickcollective.org. But we choose our members. Not everyone is right for this. And we’re not right for everyone. But we’re strategic. We’re only interested in doing things that we can measure. And we’re only interested in doing things that we can really scale. We take a business approach to how we develop these interventions, and also how we develop our members. It’s a two-way strategy–it’s getting the most out of our members for them to be inspired advocates… and really having the results on the ground.

Denver: From your observations, do you think that men and women approach philanthropy differently?  And, if they do, what would some of those differences be?

Kate: That is such a great question! Well, I’ve mostly… up until now… only worked with women. But what has started to happen– which I think is so exciting — is the husbands have said, “Well, what about me? What can I bring to the table?”

Denver: Turning the tables right.

Kate: Which is exciting, because everything we do, every Maverick Collective intervention, is taking a business approach. So businessmen, for instance, who have been involved in franchising, it’s extremely interesting to us because we have socially-franchised clinics all over the world. We want to take them to a sustainable level. So, yeah, we want some male brain power–those who have been involved in business and would like to use their resources, talent, time, and financial resources to help us solve problems. It’s about problem solving.

Denver: That’s what it gets down to.

Kate: Yep.

Denver: I should mention that Maverick Collective is an initiative of Population Services International–more commonly known as PSI. Tell us about PSI and the important role that they’re playing in this endeavor…

Kate: Well, first of all I should say that PSI is one of the largest health organizations in the world that nobody has ever heard of. We’re in 65 countries. We’ve got about 9,000 employees. We have about a $600 million annual budget. PSI focuses on market solutions for health programs. So we’re obsessed with measurement. Really, our goal is to provide universal healthcare to the poor. So PSI is the implementing partner of Maverick Collective, and they are responsible for providing the results. We tap into their incredible expertise. PSI has been doing this work for over 47 years. Started with a grant from the US government and grew into what we are today. I would say that we are like the DHL of health delivery.

Denver: That’s a good analogy. We talked about Pam Scott’s work in Tanzania. I want to talk about another example of a success… and that was low-cost screening for cervical cancer in India. Tell us how that project developed.

Kate: First of all, cervical cancer is preventable. Yet, millions of women around the world, especially in India, die from the disease every single year because they haven’t been screened. And the technology that we have here in the United States– where we go and get a pap smear every year –which probably costs the health system $30,000 to do it in a lab — those facilities simply don’t exist  around the world.

So, it was discovered through our partners that swabbing white vinegar on the cervix would show an early stage cervical cancer. Literally, household vinegar. Just a swab. Probably costs no more than a cent to do that, and we can detect early signs of cervical cancer. So we decided to pilot this, Kathy Vizas is our champion, who, I have to say, now knows more about cervical cancer than we do. Her evolution as a champion for this issue is unbelievable.

Denver: She’s a daughter of an oncologist, correct?

Kate: Yes, and I think is a frustrated doctor too, deep down. At least… a frustrated NGO worker! Anyway, we piloted her project in India, and we thought that this project would go to the private sector once we proved its results. But, actually, what ended up happening is that the government decided that they were going to take this on, and have now implemented it across India in many provinces.

Denver: Fantastic!

Kate: So for us, we look for these kinds of results. Then, the  private sector taking it on… or the government taking it on…. or both! We just want to deliver the results and then have a sustainable solution for these diseases.

“So,we all remember the horrific rapes in India–the girl on the bus, the women left hanging from trees after they’ve been raped by policeman after going to the bathroom outside. When it happened, I was at the World Economic Forum. There were many Indian businessmen, and I had never been able to break through to the Indian community of CEOs until this happened.

And then this happened and, I hate to say it, it was a real opportunity for us to develop a big program around gender-based violence.”

Denver: And that’s the whole point of your business model, as you have said…do the pilot; get the evidence, and then unlock some additional significant funding to help take it to scale. Where else has that happened?

Kate: That has happened also around gender-based violence. So, we all remember the horrific rapes in India–the girl on the bus, the women left hanging from trees after they’ve been raped by policemen after going to the bathroom outside. When it happened, I was at the World Economic Forum. There were many Indian businessmen, and I had never been able to break through to the Indian community of CEOs until this happened.

And then this happened and, I hate to say it, it was a real opportunity for us to develop a big program around gender-based violence. Indrani Goradia is our champion. She’s the most incredible woman. She was born in Trinidad, but has Indian heritage and an Indian family. And she helped us to start this gender-based violence prevention impact project in India. And now, in partnership with USAID– it’s a $10 million program — the largest in India. And we now have gender-based violence projects across the 13 countries, together with PSI. So I’ve watched both the evolution of these incredible women, who are members of Maverick Collective. And the results on the ground have been very quick. So, we no longer see this philanthropic model as a pilot.  It’s working. And we’re really just beginning.

Denver: And when the results on the ground are not that good, you don’t hesitate to share that information with your members…. not only to keep them informed, but also in the hope they can come up with the solution. And that is so different from many other NGOs that, when a problem arises, try to sweep it under the rug because they are afraid if the donors finds out about it, they’re going to end their support. But that has not been your approach.

Kate: That has not been our approach. An example was we had a barrier in Mozambique with one of our members. We really couldn’t get approval from the government to start testing this product. It was a contraception product. And it stalled. So, for six months we were really trying to get those approvals, and we were there hand-in-hand with her along the way. She understood–she took time to really understand the problem and used her time effectively and together we solved the problem.

But I have to say, there’s another really great example of big picture problem solving. Which is male circumcision. We had found out a number of years ago that circumcising African men would be an incredible HIV prevention tool. But none of our partners, and none of our donors, have thought that we would be able to get adult African men into a clinic to be circumcised. Tall order. So we used our own funding…unrestricted funding,,, to pilot an intervention in Zambia. And guess what? It failed. We couldn’t get these men in, and we tried everything. And it took us a year.. kept trying things, kept failing. And then we eventually came up with the messaging that you will be a better lover if you are circumcised. This was the message that really worked. I think we invested $400,000 in this clinic and the interventions–it’s now a $300 to $400 million leading solution across Sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of the leading prevention tools now for HIV. So yeah, it’s risk-taking and innovation…

Denver: Keeping at it.

Kate: It’s keeping at it and using money in the right way. Using private money is so powerful at the beginning stages of solving these problems. But yes, you can fail, and then you have to change course, and you’ll get there in the end. That’s what being a social entrepreneur is all about.

Denver: Fail fast and iterate…and keep on doing it until it begins to work. Another thing that you ask of your members is to become advocates for the issues that they have chosen… and to spread that message of what needs to be done. You just don’t send them out there to do that, you help prepare them. What do you do in this regard?

Kate: We do intense media training. We help our members to write effective op-eds. We come with a whole communication strategy based on who that member is. For instance, Indrani Goradia–she’s in her third year now of doing this–has done TED Talks. She’s testified before the United Nations. She’s worked all over the world with our own employees within PSI to train them to be better advocates. We have a full communication strategy, which is on display at the best conferences. The philanthropist is never to be seen at the conference, right? It’s public health specialists. It’s the same old, same old.

Denver: Same old, same old is right!

Kate: Same old, same old. Where is their empowered philanthropist who has learned by doing? And so, we’re going to shake that up. We’re missing so much opportunity by not focusing on the philanthropist and their smarts.

“I really want to stress how important the private sector is.  And anyone who wants to apply their smarts to finding business solutions together with us–with the focus on markets and financing– we welcome you.”

Denver: You’ve launched some really significant and successful projects in about 14 countries now. Are you thinking of any additional programs or projects… and perhaps going to some countries where you haven’t gone to yet….that you’re seeking funding for?

Kate: Yes, Zika is a little bit similar to Ebola, right? It’s not as ghastly, but it is a real threat. So we’re really looking at how we can prevent people – especially women — from contracting Zika, by helping them to avoid an unintended pregnancy and to make sure that they’re safe and healthy. It’s a real public health challenge that puts expectant mothers and their babies at huge risk. There’s no vaccine. Prevention is where it’s at right now. We really need to focus. So that’s one area.

We are looking at systems of approach to improve maternal nutrition and infant health. Better nutrition for mothers and their newborn babies holds huge potential to end needless deaths in pregnancy. And really, making sure that women have access to the contraception that they need– and really– delaying the first sexual experience for as long as we possibly can. Twelve- year old girls should not be married with three children. Because that brings so many complications, it prevents them from going to school.

Denver: And the cycle continues when that happens. You’ve  got to break that cycle.

Kate: Exactly! It’s about looking at the ecosystem…… and for all of us who have daughters…. I have a little girl. So many of our members have children. We’re also involving them with their parents in this. One of our members has a 16-year old girl, and she  is taking her to Mozambique so they can engage together in this.  We want to make this world a better place for our children.

I really want to stress how important the private sector is.  And anyone who wants to apply their smarts to finding business solutions together with us–with the focus on markets and financing — we welcome you. We have health insurance–that’s something that we’re looking to introduce to some of these developing markets– and financing health through a sustainable lens. We need help thinking through these business solutions.

Denver: For women in the audience, Kate, who really want to become engaged in these issues that impact girls or women — but perhaps not quite at The Maverick Collective level — what advice would you give them?

Kate: Well, my advice always is to learn and find your passion. Understand what your passion is. And there are ways of becoming involved in Maverick, such as through giving circles. If you wanted to bring a circle of women and men together to get behind a project….that would be a great way of engaging. You could also go to psi.org and make a smaller donation if you believe in the mission. We apply the funding to all of these areas. Of course, unrestricted funding is so important.

Denver: It sure is.

Kate: People get worried about funding the light bulbs and the infrastructure, but capacity is so important. Even just investing in a person who is going to do this work–a person like me. Invest in a person. I think that’s one of the best things that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done: investing in people like me to do this. You might not be building an orphanage and putting your name on it…..but by investing in a person, you will have an incredible, incredible effect!

Denver: I think that message is finally getting out. Darren Walker of  the Ford Foundation was on, and he talked about how they’re increasing their unrestricted support to these organizations. Because that’s the kind of support NGOs can leverage… and you really can’t leverage something that goes directly to a program. The dollar is the dollar, but when you invest in the capacity of the organization, it has a multiplier effect.

Kate: Exactly! I’m glad you’re getting that message out–it’s so important.

“My vision will be that you’re not just writing checks…but  you’re using your whole self to amplify impact. When we have inspired, informed philanthropists, they will also inspire other NGOs. They will inspire governments and politicians. They will also inspire other like-minded philanthropists.”

Denver: Let me close on this. One of the grand ambitions of The Maverick Collective–  beyond the life changing work that you’re doing to help these women and girls — is to redefine what it means to be a philanthropist. What’s your vision for what a philanthropist is to become?

Kate: My vision will be that you’re not just writing checks…but you’re using your whole self to amplify impact.  When we have inspired, informed philanthropists, they will also inspire other NGOs. They will inspire governments and politicians. They will also inspire other like-minded philanthropists. And if we want to achieve these goals–these extremely aggressive sustainable development goals–in the time frame that we’ve got……

I want to see the end to these diseases in my lifetime. I’m impatient. Our members are impatient, and it’s really going to take a whole movement of inspired advocates to do that. And by the end of this journey with us–the three years that it really takes to implement a solution–they will have gone through the entire process with us and really had a crash course on global development. This is a real opportunity to learn about the issues. And our hope is that they then inspire 10 other people. That is what it  is going to take to move the needle on these issues…

Denver: It’s going to take all of us.

Kate: …Maverick is an important name because it takes an entrepreneur. And Collective is an important addition to that because it’s a Collective of Maverick like-minded, bold entrepreneurs who want to see change.

Denver: Well, Kate Roberts, the Co-Founder of The Maverick Collective… I want to  thank you for being on the show this evening. In addition to the work that you’re doing to better the lives of countless women and girls around the world, I strongly suspect that this women-centric and women-led model of philanthropy will significantly change the way all philanthropy is done in the years to come. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Kate: Such a pleasure. Thank you!


*The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 PM and 7:00 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @BizofGive on Twitter and at Facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving.

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