September 26, 2010
As executive director of one of Santa Barbara’s newest and most ambitious foundations — the Eleos (a Greek word meaning “compassion combined with help or action with compassion”) Foundation — Andy Lower’s enthusiasm for his work is infectious. He recently sat down with Leslie Dinaberg to talk about combining passion with strategy in the fight against poverty.
Andy Lower: Yes, we’re based here and came out of the sale of La Casa de Maria a few years ago. I joined Eleos a year and a half ago. We reworked our mission statement … so we’re focusing on health and education in the developing world, with market-based solutions. Trying to find long-term sustainable solutions that can really make a difference in the world.
If I can give you a couple of examples, we’re trying to catalyze capital to fight extreme poverty. We’re trying to not just use the money that we have as Eleos but also trying to raise money in Santa Barbara and beyond to find effective solutions that are going to help people long-term.
We just recently closed out a first co-investment deal in India. There is a group in India called Healthpoint and they provide tele-medicine in rural communities. Basically, you go into a Healthpoint in a rural community, which has a broadband connection so you can see a doctor on a video screen from a city six hours away. The doctor is able to diagnose 80 percent of the ailments. The other 20 percent they will say you need to actually come into the city to see a doctor face to face or go to the hospital. But 80 percent of the people will be able to be diagnosed.
They also are able to do diagnostic tests. The Indian villager pays for the service, they pay to have an appointment with the doctor. The company is set up as a for-profit company, so the money pays for the service they provide.
LD: That’s an interesting project; both the for-profit aspect of it and the remote communication with the doctor are unique.
AL: There’s a myth that people can’t afford to pay for health care, but health care is being paid for one way or another. The people who we talk to basically have the choice of going to a local quack, where they can’t trust them, they may not be reliable; they may be some doctor, in quotations, but they may not have any medical qualification. Or they may try going to a government-run facility and waste a day waiting to see a doctor or they can try to come to this unique opportunity they have.
The other twist is that Healthpoint provides safe drinking water. So that helps provide opportunities for women in the community to go in and collect safe drinking water, and while they are there they can see a doctor.
They overcome cultural barriers and they can receive quality health care. And then with the for-profit side of things, it’s totally a social mission but the idea is to get it to be scalable so we can have the opportunity of a for-profit model rather than just traditional philanthropic models.
LD: So you’re partnering with Healthpoint?
AL: Healthpoint Services Global. We did a commercial debt investment last year, $15,000, and then we’ve just finished up this new round where we’ll have 16 different investors coming in for $10,000 chunks. The idea is that we have, hopefully, gotten more confidence having done it this last year and our investors will be able to come on with more confidence.
LD: Is it kind of like Kiva micro-finance?
AL: Similar. Micro-finance often has good effects, but someone gave me the analogy that giving somebody milk while expecting them to keep running on a treadmill doesn’t help them to gain weight. Where you are able to work for something like health, work for something like education, the idea that if people were able to have more health care or more education then they are able to receive micro-finance loans with the Kiva model, then they can actually sustain a livelihood. But being able to run your own business through a Kiva model but not being able to have any education, not being able to have health care, means you’re kind of still stuck on the bottom.
If we can apply the lessons that have been learned in micro-finance with this new way of thinking where people say how can we use hybrid models, meaning for-profit and nonprofit, whatever use of capital is going to be most advantageous. The big-boy investors aren’t going to come in with this because it’s too high-risk … but, for us, we’re thinking this is kind of an enhanced grant. We can either grant the money and it will just disappear or we can say, “Hey, here’s an opportunity for us to fund not just these clinics but also this new way of thinking about investment.”
Fifty percent of my time is spent trying to find these opportunities and the other 50 percent is spent here in Santa Barbara trying to raise awareness of these issues.
When I moved to town I was really aware that there was this huge philanthropic energy here, both in terms of dollars but also in people’s hearts and minds and their way of thinking. There are obviously a huge number of nonprofits here and the last thing I wanted to do is put up another silo to create another kind of stand-alone group. I came to town and I heard about (UCSB) Arts & Lectures, for example, and all of these big-name speakers had come to town and I said that was fantastic. What was the impact?
… Nicholas Kristof from The New York Times agreed to do an event with Eleos before he did his main big event. He did a fundraiser with us, but with us he focused on micronutrients. You and I take for granted that when we have salt on our food it has iodine in it. If a child receives sufficient iodine before the age of 2, on average their IQ goes up 10 points. … If you can get micronutrients in the food supply chain you can address malnutrition, and children and women are disproportionately affected. … We have funded a group that is working in Liberia to find where the foods are coming into the country, and where it would be appropriate for the foods to be fortified.
We’re working alongside the government doing the heavy lifting, and we’re trying to make it manageable so the food they do get can help address malnutrition. … We’re trying to think of creative ways that we can have the biggest impact possible.
LD: Do you have a specific goal, like half of our funds are for straight grants and half are going to investments, or is it on a project-by-project basis?
AL: We’re looking for projects between $50,000 and $350,000. We’re looking to sunset as a foundation with our endowment. Our view is that people are in need today, so let’s see what we can do to help more today. But our belief is that if Eleos is doing anything of value then the market will find a way to continue the work we’re doing.
LD: There is obviously a lot of wealth in Santa Barbara, but it’s still a relatively small community. Will the foundation work expand beyond Santa Barbara in terms of prospective supporters?
AL: That’s a great question. An example would be our recent Impact Investing event. We had about 35 people who came here and we did it live online so someone in San Francisco could watch it live on their iPhone. The idea is that we can mobilize the community and then get the 35 talking after the finish; there was kind of a community but there were also people outside of the building geography who were hearing about the topic matter.
In terms of the mission for Eleos, we were here to do a relatively small number of strategic investments that can hopefully open up the doors of monetary investments but also intellectual investments. What we have is a base here, and we have the use of this campus four times a year.
… We’re doing an event in November focusing on Liberia. I was able to go to Liberia in March to have a look at what’s happening on the ground. I met with the president (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), who is the first female president in Africa. Liberia is where we have our food fortification strategy and we’re looking at a couple of other opportunities where there’s potential for us to invest in private health care that could be scalable in rural communities. We can profile these people in Santa Barbara and beyond to put our money where our mouth is.
LD: How did you get into this kind of work?
AL: My background is international development. I spent time working in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and I was working for a for-profit philanthropic advisory firm on the East Coast. We worked with high net-worth individuals and foundations, advising them on how to effectively give money away. One of the crazy things is that people say it’s easier to make the money than it is to give it away effectively. Obviously you can just write the check and help, but to actually know the impact you’re having is harder.
… My view of the world is that the world can be changed, and I think it’s ridiculous to accept the status quo. I also think the traditional paradigms have been proven not to work. So the traditional kind of a) nonprofits; this is what we do or b) philanthropic avenues … I don’t think those don’t need to exist but I think they can be more effective if they are augmented. That’s my philosophical view. As I’ve gotten older, my optimism has grown because I’ve seen what can be done.
LD: That’s great, and not what most people do when they get older. (Laughs)
AL: When you see these rural communities in India that are trying it — and I wish more people would be able to see it — women receive clean drinking water and they have a different life because of this investment.
LD: So you said you’ve been here for 18 months and you have an 18-month-old baby?
AL: Yes, we moved across in November 2008 when my wife was eight months pregnant. We wanted to come here and get started rather than being a woman with a 2 month old, and we were keen to get on with the opportunity at Eleos, as well. My daughter was born in Cottage Hospital so it was great to be in town for that. We’re excited to be here and have lots to do.
LD: What do you do when you’re not working?
AL: I completed my first marathon last year. We did the Carpinteria Triathlon. It’s good to get involved in outdoor sports activities. Obviously, I do spend quite a lot of time at my job so that’s not so much free time for leisure as I’d like … but we like going out in town and we’re keen to get out and about and do activities and go to nice restaurants.
LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?
AL: Passionate; I’m passionate about our mission. Optimistic. I would say impatient or a positive twist like action-focused or something like that. I don’t like sitting around. Life is short and you only get one shot at it.
Vital Stats: Andy Lower
Born: Jan. 31, just outside of London
Family: Wife Jessica, daughter Marlowe (18 months) and a son to be born any day
Professional Accomplishments: Executive director, Eleos Foundation; formerly with the international philanthropic advisory firm Geneva Global Inc.; holds a master’s degree in international development from London-based Middlesex University and an undergraduate law degree from the University of Southampton
Best Book You’ve Read Recently: This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Favorite Local Spot: “One of the major ones is Mac’s Fish & Chip shop, 503 State St. We’re there for every Sunday lunch. We spend quite a lot of time at the Santa Barbara Zoo with my daughter. I love to be able to run on the beaches. Our stroller is nice and rusty because I love to take my child on the beach.”
Little-Known Fact: “We have two miniature daschunds. The first is Lord Shaftesbury and he was instrumental in eradicating child slavery in the U.K., and the second is Sir William Wilberforce and he was involved in the abolition movement. So that’s kind of a random little fact for you.”
The Eleos Foundation will host an educational event Nov. 18-20 to learn how the people of Liberia are turning tragedy into opportunity, to hear stories of hope from those whose lives have been changed in dramatic ways, and to learn how you can support their efforts. For more information, call 805.565.9062 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.