Jessica Jackley is an australiabusinessblog.com, investor, professor and public speaker who has focused her career on social justice. After co-founding Kiva, she launched Alltruists, which runs at-home, kid-friendly volunteer projects for families that come in eco-friendly boxes. She sat down with Jessica Abu to talk about how she helps parents teach their children about homelessness, bees, clean water, hunger, foster animals and mental health.
Jessica Abo: Jessica, before we get into Alltruists, take us back to Kiva, a nonprofit that expands capital for entrepreneurs. What can you tell about that journey?
I learned about microfinance while lecturing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business as a staff member. I was actually working there as a temporary administrator right after graduating from college, by the way, not with a business degree. I had never taken an entrepreneurship course before. I thought business was bad. I thought it was about tricking people into spending money on things they don’t need. I thought it was about taking and greed and I thought nonprofits were good. So I had no interest in business or entrepreneurship, and yet I was at this great institution, Stanford Graduate School of Business, in my first job and I happened to be in this incredible department called the Center for Social Innovation. It was a place where people walked through doors every day to solve social problems, the same kind of problems that many of the nonprofits I admired so much tried to solve, but they did it in a different way, using corporate skills and entrepreneurial thinking. It was baffling to me.
I quit my job at Stanford and begged my way into an unpaid internship where I could learn more about microfinance, and microcredit in particular. It was a three and a half month project in East Africa. The experience I gained there during this internship, meeting entrepreneurs who had only received $100 to start or grow their small business, absolutely changed everything for me. It changed the way I saw what was possible. It changed what I thought might be the role of helpful for-profit or non-profit organizations.
It gave me the chance to hear first hand stories from people whose only story I honestly had was one of utter sadness, suffering and helplessness. I met entrepreneurs. I met people who were trying to lift themselves and their families out of poverty when they had access to this little bit of money. It was so inspiring that it led to all these what-if questions that eventually led to the creation of Kiva, a platform where anyone with a credit card or PayPal account and an internet connection can lend $25 or more to an australiabusinessblog.com anywhere on the internet. the planet that needs a small loan. Sometimes it’s just a few hundred dollars, sometimes more. Today, Kiva has facilitated just over $1.6 billion in $25 at a time loans from generous individuals around the world. Being a part of those early days has really been one of the greatest gifts of my life and it really set me on my own path of entrepreneurship.
Then you had children. Tell us how that shaped the shift in your work and led you to create Alltruists.
I had four children and our last little one was born just before the world went crazy with COVID. Even though our existence usually became slow and smaller and close to home after the birth of our other babies, this time it was different because for a long time our world remained very closed and isolated, as it is for everyone else. Volunteering had always been very important to us and it was already very difficult to find and schedule opportunities, let alone bring children. Often they are not even allowed. But the few things we could do were no longer possible. I really wanted to be able to do something to give back to my kids that wasn’t just, “Hey guys, watch mom enter her credit card information and donate to this organization.” I wanted to do something hands-on with them. I wanted them to receive the message that more than anything else, their heads, their hands, their hearts, their time and talents, that is truly the most valuable thing they can offer the world, even when they are small.
Alltruists was born out of this desire to create new ways for children and families to serve together, even from the comfort of their own homes. The broadest possible way to express that vision is that we exist to reimagine and redistribute volunteer opportunities so that everyone can give back, anytime, anywhere.
How does it work?
Alltruists partners with leading nonprofits to invent new ways for children and families to learn from home, to connect with empathy-building stories, often the stories of individuals who have worked with the nonprofit as beneficiaries of their product or services, to do something meaningful and impactful through a volunteer or service project. Sometimes that project is something that kids make or do or collect at home and then send it to another human being or to an organization that can use it to affect the planet or animals, but often times we make projects at home where you you can be more responsible, for example with your water consumption or maybe hang up a bird feeder for migratory birds and window stickers, something like that.
There is a wide variety of projects and we really focus it on the needs and the perspective and theory of change of the nonprofit organizations we work with. There is also a donation box and a bridge to further activities. Our dream is that this encourages people to become much more involved in the short and long term after taking those first few steps and living the experience we design for them.
So many families say they want to volunteer, but what do you think is holding them back?
It’s true. Ninety percent of people say they want to volunteer more and only about a quarter of us get around to it and that’s understandable. It’s not that easy to find the right match, to find organizations where your values are really aligned and you are genuinely passionate about what that organization does. The actual activities often available to volunteers do not always fit what is easy or appropriate for children to participate in, which is unfortunate but a reality. Often nonprofits deal with very sensitive issues and very sensitive populations. It’s not always that kids can come in and be really really helpful at that point. But it’s not impossible, and that’s of course why we exist. We know that there is always something that anyone, any person at any stage of their life, can do to be helpful, whether it be something small or something much bigger.
There are platforms where families can find opportunities and sign up and actually go out the door and do those activities, but we really see a future and a world where there are other options too, where you could get a subscription box on a Sunday afternoon. open that you get a craft project and do it, why not do something that is a craft or an activity and it really has a purpose, that really matters to someone else outside of your own home? We think the best of so many worlds come together.
What is your advice for families who want to raise children who are kind and empathetic?
My best advice for what I’ve seen work in my own family is to just walk on foot. Be authentic. Be vulnerable and open with your children. It’s one thing to talk about the things you believe and the way you wish the world was different and the kinds of things that are important to you, the values you have as a family, but it’s quite another to really get out there and take action together. I guess I’d say take a deep breath and don’t worry too much about all the clutter, because the world is messy.
It’s really hard to deal with the difficult issues of climate, hunger and so many things, but when you grab your child’s hand and start walking that walk together, and if you’re not afraid to say, “I do not know . Let’s figure that out, you and me together,’ I think kids really do feel freedom of choice. They really feel they are important whatever they are and you show them you are an example to them the most important thing you can do is show up and start trying, make that effort, get involved and be helpful in the best and most humble way you can.