Maximum Positive Impact

In 2004 I decided that I wanted to complete a nonprofit project. I didn’t have something specific in mind but my attitude was that the world had a million problems so it would be very easy for me to figure out which one I would focus on. It turns out that it was not easy to figure out which one to focus on and it set me on a journey that led to creating the iimagine project and writing this book 10 years later.

As a result of having this issue on my mind I started playing closer attention to people in the news that were working on some kind of nonprofit project. I noticed that most of them were working on projects that related to an issue that directly affected their own lives or the life of somebody close to them. When I discussed it with people I noticed that most of them got involved in nonprofit projects because it was recommended to them by a friend or they responded to some kind of advertising or perhaps saw it on the news. In other cases their involvement in the project seemed to be nothing more than an opportunity to manage their public profile. 

Like most people that get involved with a nonprofit project I wanted to feel comfortable that the project would be worthy of my time, effort or money. In my case, my mother died from breast cancer. There are a large number of nonprofit organizations that focus on breast cancer so it would have been easy to simply allocate my time, effort and money to one of these organizations. When I carefully considered the possibility of doing this I very quickly realized that I would somehow be honoring my mother by doing this so I felt a strong personal connection to this approach. However, I felt like there was still something missing but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

It eventually occurred to me that deciding to help one group of people meant deciding not to help another group of people. When I thought about some of the people that I was choosing not to help I realized that this very small decision could be a life-and-death decision for the people I decide not to help. This wasn’t because I was planning on doing something so big that it would impact other people’s lives. It was the opposite. I could see how just a few dollars could buy a vaccine that could save someone’s life and therefore this not a decision-making predicament for people that are in a position to spend large amounts of money. It’s a predicament that almost all of us in developed countries need to address when we decide to get involved with a nonprofit project.

When I applied this logic to the idea of helping the nonprofits focusing on breast cancer I realized that I would be mostly helping women in developed countries that had lived relatively comfortable lives and were the beneficiaries of all of the opportunities that come from growing up and living in a developed country. I felt like I should be looking to assist people in under developed countries rather than people in developed countries. This felt unusual. On the one hand I felt an emotional pull from the breast cancer organizations as a result of my mother dying from breast cancer. On the other hand I felt like I could do more to help people in underdeveloped countries even though I had never met any of them and of no relationship with them. I had to choose between an emotional strategy and an intellectual strategy. Of course, I also have the option of doing a combination of both. The question is, what is the best approach? Is there a right and wrong answer? I don’t know the answer but I did decide to help people in underdeveloped countries. 

As you would expect, the next question was, which group of people will I try to help? I decided that I would find the poorest people in the world and try to help them. I didn’t know if this was the best answer to the question but I did put some legitimate effort into trying to find an answer and this was the best answer that I could come up with. While researching the world’s poorest people, I discovered the Human Development Index (“HDI”), a publication of the United Nations. It essentially ranks all of the world’s countries from the richest to the poorest by using metrics such as life expectancy, GDP per capita, infant mortality rate, etc.

Sierra Leone was at the bottom of the list. I chose not to go there because there was some violence and, although going to a violent place didn’t really concern me, I was planning to take other people with me and I didn’t want to put them at risk. The country that was lowest on the list but not violent at the time was the West African country of Mali. It was forth from the bottom on the list and, therefore, ranking as the fourth poorest country in the world according to the HDI. In the meantime, I could see how easy it would be to make an argument  that the bottom five to ten countries on the list are in fact equally poor (using a different mix of metrics).

After doing some research on Mali I discovered that there had been a lot of problems with teenage boys being abducted and sent across the border to Côte d’Ivoire (formally the Ivory Coast) where they were forced to work on cocoa fields. This was forced labor and was bordering on modern-day slavery. I discovered that a nonprofit organization, Save The Children – Canada, had established a presence in Mali that was focused on recovering the abducted children from Côte d’Ivoire and assisting them with their recovery and reintegration back into life Mali. I contacted them and let them know that I was looking to do some kind of nonprofit work in Mali but had not made any final decisions about what that work would be. They were kind enough to meet with me and allow me to meet with several of their people on the ground in Mali. 

I created a team of six people (including myself) to shoot and document the trip and we went to Mali for two weeks. I called this trip the “listen and learn trip”. The objective was to set aside our preconceived notions of what these people needed and let them tell us what they needed. I can write an entire book about the people that we met and how people manage when they are in difficult situations but that book will have to wait for now.

After returning home there were several projects that I could pursue in Mali and had to decide what to do. One of the first decisions to make was how much time and money to spend. Should I focus on a specific health solution? Should I focus on a specific education solution? What about infrastructure? Water? A combination of some or all of these? Which specific group of people in Mali will I help? Although I was struggling to put it into words at the time, it eventually occurred to me that the question that I was “really” trying to answer was, what can I do that will have the Maximum Positive Impact (“MPI”)? The clarity that came out of this question as opposed to all of the previous questions became a significant inflection point in my life.

I decided to set a budget of $10,000 and try to figure out how far I can make the $10,000 go. While in Mali I noticed that the people that lived north of the capital city, Bamako, were poorer than the people that lived south (as result of the North being closer to the desert and the South receiving considerably more rainfall) so I decided to assist a village of approximately 1400 people called Djeguena in the north. They had established a solid education program so their most pressing need was for a health center. The Malian government had established a program that would allow the government to contribute funds toward the cost of a health center for a village if the village put up a portion of the money itself. As you might expect, most of the people that live in most Malian villages are engaged in subsistence living so there is no surplus money to be spent on a health center – or anything else. As a result of the first trip to Mali it was obvious that the health center would be critical to any village that didn’t have one. At the time, one in every five children in Mali would die before the age of five and the primary causes of death were complications at birth and malaria. This village was also off the grid and had never had any electrical power of any kind. 

The program that we developed included allocating the $10,000 budget to putting up the money required to get the government funding for the health center, purchasing additional drugs and medical consumables for the health center, malaria drugs, providing a plug-and-play solar kit that would give the village electricity for the first time (along with energy-efficient lighting that provided the village with light at night for the first time). We also provided a computer and a printer that could operate from the solar power. We provided several smaller but important items like a shortwave radio that can be recharged using a crank mechanism on the side of the radio. This allowed a remotely located village like this to stay in contact with events in the capital city of their country and anything else that may impact them. At the time, I used to joke that the people in these villages would not know if there was a military coup that had taken over their government until the troops show up on their doorstep (this ceased to be a joke in 2012 when there was in fact a military coup in Mali). I made a second trip to Mali in 2006 to deliver all of these items to the village directly. 

After waiting two years I went back to Mali for the third time to see if our little project had an impact. The short answer is that the project did have an impact that was beyond my most optimistic expectations. The first thing I noticed was that all of the equipment had not been stolen, was in perfect order and it was all being used. They showed me through the health center and introduced me to its three employees – a midwife to assist with childbirth, a nurse and an administrator. They explained that it was important for the health center to be able to sustain itself and not rely on additional external funding so this meant creating a system where people in the village would pay to use the health center. They quickly discovered that it not be possible to simply rely on payments from people that were sick so they developed a system where everybody in the village would contribute a small amount of money each year and the people that actually use the health center would pay a little more when they used it. They had essentially created their own healthcare program without any input from me. 

Although I did not request any statistical data the administrator of the health center gave it to me anyway and it included two critical statistics. One of them was that the health center had delivered 42 babies and all of them survived. The second statistic was that the health center treated 210 people for malaria and all of them survived. I mentioned earlier in this chapter that one in five children died before the age of five due to a combination of complications at birth and malaria. You can do the math to figure out the impact of the health center.

The objective behind providing the computer and the printer was to allow the mayor and his staff to create any official documentation for the village. They showed me ID cards that were created with the computer and the printer. On a previous trip to Mali I asked the young man how old he was and he responded by saying “towards twenty”. When I asked what he meant by this, the translator explained that most people in Mali don’t know their exact age, they just count the rainy seasons, hence the answer “towards twenty”.

In 2004, shortly after figuring out that answering the question, what can I do that will have the maximum positive impact on this village, I registered the domain name Intuitively, I knew that there was much more to this concept than helping a village in Mali but it took many years to really figure it out. My initial thinking was that the concept of MPI could be and perhaps should be applied to all nonprofit projects. Then it occurred to me that it should also be applied by governments. Over a period of time I would eventually ask myself the question, what can I do that would have the biggest positive impact on the world? It was this point in time when I realized that this is not just a methodology for nonprofit projects, it’s potentially a way of life or even a purpose for life.

Although this was exciting, my initial attempt to apply it to life more broadly uncovered one obvious problem. In my specific experience, as described above, I essentially answered the MPI question by a process of elimination by doing the following: the starting point was answering the question, what could I do to have the biggest positive impact? I answered the question by deciding that I would help the world’s poorest people. I found them in a country that was listed at the bottom of the Human Development Index. After visiting the country of Mali I determined that the people in the North were poorer than the people in the South and therefore I narrowed down my global search in the quest to achieve MPI to a specific village in the north of Mali. If all 7 billion people in the world answered the same questions the same way then all 7 billion of us would be assisting a specific small village in the north of Mali. Clearly, that would not be an optimal result for humanity or the world. All 7 billion of us will have a different answer to the question, what can I do to have the biggest positive impact on the world? We all come from different backgrounds, have different skills, different resources, different views about what would have the biggest impact, different ways of solving problems, etc. Therefore, we all have different answers to the question, what can I do that will have the biggest positive impact on the world?

There was still one more major problem that needed to be resolved in order for me to reach a point where I could genuinely believe that MPI could be a legitimate and practical philosophy for life. If I wanted to theoretically have the biggest possible impact then theoretically I would work all day and all night and I would not eat or drink or sleep. This may result in the biggest positive impact in a 24 to 48 hour period but then the needs of the human body will eventually require some attention and, if they don’t get it, my body will shut down. It’s clear that living in a way that has the biggest positive impact on the world requires us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. It doesn’t take much research or thought to figure out that becoming the best version of ourselves is a lot more complicated than simply getting food, water and sleep. Humans need a long list of things in their lives in order to live an optimal life and these things include spending time with friends, laughing, downtime, individual expression, learning about life, having fun, etc. These are not just things that we think are nice to have so that we can have some balance in our lives. As you will see later in this book, these are things that have been scientifically proven to be required by humans in order for a human to function and perform at optimal levels. These are all things that we have to do in order to have a positive impact on our own lives. Therefore, we need to live in a way that has maximum positive impact on our own lives in order to then be able to have the maximum positive impact on the world, however, we also need to live in a way that has a maximum positive impact on the world in order to have the maximum positive impact on ourselves. Therefore, theoretically, they are also the same thing. This is the Maximum Positive Impact philosophy.

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