Recycling for Change: Epic Change uses a pay-it-forward approach to saving the world

If you’re going to change the world, wouldn’t you like it to be epic?

Stacey Monk, Co-founder and CEO of Epic Change, does, which is why she and Sanjay Patel decided to launch their unique approach to sparking social change by converting people’s “epic” stories into financial resources they can use to improve their communities, their lives — and the world.

Rooted in the best practices of successful businesses and charities, their somewhat novel approach to funding uses donations to provide interest-free loans to finance community improvement efforts, which they repay by generating revenue-driving projects based on each epic story, and then recycle by duplicating those ideas in other communities, effectively spreading hopefulness and change to everyone their program touches.

I had the opportunity to talk with Stacey to dig a little deeper into their change model, and this impassioned former management consultant with a degree in Public Policy from the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University boasts an impressive resume, but her most compelling attribute by far is a genuine desire to promote positive change and a dewey-eyed hopefulness that makes me believe she can.

1. Why did you decide to start Epic Change?

I started Epic Change in 2007 after a trip to Arusha, Tanzania, where I volunteered at a school founded by “Mama Lucy” Kamptoni.  She saved her income from selling chickens and in 2003 used her earnings to establish a primary school that now serves over 200 children from villages near her home.  I thought the compelling, hopeful stories of Mama Lucy and students like Gideon, Pius and Glory might be assets she could use to raise funds to expand her efforts.

Epic Change was conceived to ensure that changemakers like Lucy can maintain self-sufficiency and get access to the funds they need to sustain and expand their own successful, locally-led community improvements. I also wanted to connect people around the globe with authentic, inspiring stories like hers.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

I no longer see challenges.  They look alot like opportunities.  That said, subsisting income-free requires great imagination.  But I’ve learned that rent & kibble for my dog are the only true necessities.

3. What would you say has been your greatest success since you launched?

Our greatest successes aren’t really mine.  I’m just a connector.  Hundreds of donors and Mama Lucy and her community of students, parents and teachers have done the heavy lifting.  While I’m certainly proud of what we’ve accomplished, I’m vastly more impressed with what our Tanzanian partner has done with the $35,000 loan we’ve provided so far.  In 100 days, she built and opened 4 classrooms at a school that now serves over 200 children.  That’s fast.  The fourth graders at the school are now participating in national exams, and I got a few emails recently about how confident they were.  That’s true success.

4. What trends have you been observing in the social change movement?

I think the most important trend is crowdsourcing or what Nirvan Mullick, an amazing guy who went to high school with me and has since founded the 1 Second Film Project, calls “micro-collaboration.”  According to Nirvan’s website, micro-collaboration is the process by which “many people to work together in lots of little ways to collectively create something bigger than we could alone.”  The Obama campaign has been a great example of this.

I think my generation has long believed that wealth equals power.  With emerging web 2.0 technologies like Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc., we’re beginning to realize that each of us has a voice, and that we can combine our resources to create meaningful change.

5. How do you think green ties into your initiative?  Do any of the programs you’ve funded to date have an environmental element?

Whatever we do, we try to do sustainably.  We actually partnered with an organization called Sun Strides that implemented solar energy at the new school site, and the school grows its own garden to feed the children there in a sustainable way.  Our holiday cards and stationary, which feature the stories of children like Pius, Alice, Damares, Naomi and Teivin, are printed by GreenerPrinter on 100% recycled stock with soy and vegetable inks.

We had two children, Nihad and Kelvin, tell us they wanted to become environmentalists when they grow up during our last visit to Tanzania.  On that trip, we also met with the local founder of an NGO called the Green Arusha society, an organization that trains local Masai people to live in a more sustainable way.  He’s a close friend of Mama Lucy, and will be doing work with the children to teach them about protecting the environment.

7. Do you notice any spikes in donations around the holidays?

During the last holiday season, we’d just launched.  This year, we’re hoping that our holiday cards and gifts, each of which shares the story of a child at our partner school in Tanzania, will help us to raise funds. I read recently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that “84% of people in the study said they would prefer to receive a gift that would benefit someone else rather than a traditional present,” so I hope gift givers will consider that when shopping for the holidays this year.

8. What types of projects are you funding at the moment?

We’re thinking big, but we’ve started small. We’ve made a conscious decision to focus our efforts on only one project at a time right now to really refine our model and ensure the success of our project in Tanzania. Our efforts there will be complete after we’ve added additional classrooms to take the students through at least seventh grade, and the school’s first kitchen, cafeteria, library and computer lab.

When we finish this project and loans are repaid, we anticipate that we may choose another geographic location or a different type of effort; and we may use the repaid funds to make multiple loans to support more than one cause.

9. If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

I would end indifference.

10. What advice would you give for people who want to make a difference?

Do it.

11. Who or what inspired you to focus your efforts on social good?

I’m hoping the answer to this question is somewhere hidden in this note I wrote to my mom and Mama Lucy on Mother’s Day this year.  I wrote:

“There are no words to express how grateful I am to have you both in my life. You have made me who I am.
I hope, more than anything, that I am a reminder for you of the most important lesson you have taught me: Even if you have little, even when you lose much, if you keep giving, good will come.”

Of course, people who have experienced poverty themselves are often motivated to ensure others do not.  That said, my days on food stamps, government cheese and Kix when I was very young are nothing compared to the poverty I see in Africa.  My brother Josh, who died a few years ago, could be working behind the scenes too.

12. How else can people get involved with Epic Change without making a monetary donation?

Get a kid involved. Give a gift for the holidays. Create a gift registry badge to collect donations instead of gifts this year. Share Epic Change on your blog or website.  Go to Tanzania. Subscribe to the blog. Pass on stories of hope.  Follow me on Twitter. Help with product design or the website.  There’s any number of opportunities, and we’d love to have your help!

Since Epic Change is built on a community-driven approach to change, there is any number of ways that you can get involved in supporting their efforts.  With the holidays looming ahead, their gift ideas are an ideal option to help forward their initiative in an easy — yet meaningful way — from inspirational greeting cards, featuring the lives they’ve impacted, to Tanzanian stationary. But as Stacey so succinctly put it, the best way to get involved is to simply ‘Do it.’  Change is possible, and the efforts of Epic Change, are testament to that.  We can save the planet by positively impacting each of the lives in it.  It only takes a dose of change today to feed a world of possibilities tomorrow.  And in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”

1 thought on “Recycling for Change: Epic Change uses a pay-it-forward approach to saving the world”

  1. Ending poverty, supporting sustainability, fostering education, and empowering with financial aid. They’re admittedly small, yet play a vital role as a voice of hope for so many. May they continue to expand, and inspire others to do the same.

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