Meet radical Ally Kevin Starr

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Kevin Starr directs the Mulago Foundation which finds and funds high-performance organizations that meet the basic needs of the very poor. He established the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program and Henry Arnhold Fellows Program which concentrate on finding scalable solutions to poverty and conservation. Before he stumbled into philanthropy, Kevin had a perfectly good career in medicine and went through medical school at UCSF.

→ Kevin, you are a catalyst when it comes to the progress for social change. You are a profound inspiration for us and our work, and many others as well. Kevin, you see a vast about of human potential in your work, the companies you work with, in your fellows, etc. How do you describe your work to others, and how is your work currently affecting change?

At our core, we’ve been given is the chance to deploy a bunch of money toward maximum impact. And we decided a long time ago that scalable solutions were the best way to have a real impact in terms of our mission, which is to meet the basic needs of the very poor. Fundamentally we believe that funders should do four things – find, fund, teach, connect.

Find – To find the best organizations, you need to have very clear criteria for what you are looking for, and a high-value network to find them. We look for 1) a fit with our mission, 2) a scalable solution, and a team with the chops to deliver that solution on the path to scale. Over time we’ve built a great referral network at Mulago and most of the people we now find come through that network.

Fund – Involves funding organizations as efficiently and as effectively as possible; to have a close, but low hassle relationship with them. We give unrestricted funding only: the idea is that if we know how to spend it better than they do, we shouldn’t be funding them at all. We give continued funding on the basis of ongoing success. Our fundamental funding decision is about that upward sweep toward exponential impact. We get in when we think that’s possible, we stay in when we believe it still is possible, and we get out when we don’t believe it’s going to happen anymore. That’s become a real discipline for us.

Teach/Advise – In our case, we have a specific systematic approach to design for impact at scale that has evolved over the last decade. That is the core teaching for our fellows. And over recent years we’ve developed a systematic approach to strategy which we continue to iterate on. That informs the teaching we do with our fellows, and the advising we do for our portfolio organizations. It also forms the core of our due diligence. These two things have created a sort of “unified field theory” of impact at scale.

Connect - being a funder is a unique position to help your organizations to connect your people to other resources and funders. Money is still the oxygen of doers. We see it as critically important to help them get more money.

If you do all these things, you help to influence the field. Fundamentally we are trying to make the funder world look more like a market for impact, where resources flow efficiently to those with the most impact, or at least the most potential for impact. It doesn’t look remotely like that now, but there are glimmers of hope. We really want to play a useful role.

→ If you had $10M of your own wealth to bet/invest in one future technology, what would it be?

I hate to say it, but I think it would be artificial intelligence. For example, at Mulago, we have an organization called Think.MD that is using Bayesian algorithms that allows community health workers to make as good diagnoses as doctors for some conditions. That’s not even true AI yet. We have a number of organizations wherein AI would allow interactive conversations with patients, farmers, citizens who need legal advice - all kinds of people who need to access expert opinion. So much of what we have to do face to face could be done as or more effectively with AI. Even AI can’t make a bad idea – or organization – good, but accelerates and amplifies the good ones – the impact could be huge.

→ What is your key leadership lesson?

The key to turning charismatic leadership into effective leadership are two fundamental things –

(1) A good idea. There’s nothing worse than charisma in service to a bad idea. You ultimately must have a good idea, and or be brave about iterating on your ideas until they are good.

(2) An ability to communicate your vision, a set of ideas and a model/plan to bring people along with you. Those being everyone who matters – to your core team and everyone beyond – that is absolutely critical. If you fail to rally people or rally people ineffectively your compelling work will not get traction.

→ Please share with us, what’s the best piece of radical advice you’ve been given?

Years ago when I first got involved in philanthropy, a wise board member said to me “… everyone is going to think you are a genius now you are a funder”. He paused a comedic pause and then said to me… “you are not a genius!” ;) That sort of set the tone for how we built Mulago. We are not geniuses, we are generalists, and we have a systematic framework that could serve as both a buoyancy device and GPS on rough seas. We make a strength out of not being experts or geniuses.

→ What’s the most enlightening book you have read?

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – Just this notion that there are two modes of thinking that you have to address over time. That really ended up shaping our whole approach to behavioral change at Mulago, which is ultimately at the core of everything we do. We need to address behavioral change. In fact, every social sector organization is, at its core a behavioral change organization - or at least it should be. What he wrote about and set in motion… sits at the center of all that. You need to understand how people think, to think constructively about what they do, and you need to understand that people aren’t thinking at all! Then what do you do?

Learn more about Kevin and his work.


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