This article was co-written with the Managing Editor Virginia Vigliar.
“Before, philanthropy was something very wealthy individuals were engaging in. Now, everybody can do [it]. Once you empower each individual, there’s nothing more powerful.” This mission – to change the trajectory of global development through the collective power of individuals – is the heart of the 109 World initiative.
The young San-Francisco-based non-profit was founded on 7 Passions – Education, Animals, Water, Environment, Children, Food Security, and Women– which happen to align with the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Though the SDGs were not a template for the 7 Passions, these are the most pressing issues in the world so the thematic overlap comes as no surprise to the 109 team. In a recent interview with Words in the Bucket, Chief Impact Officer and co-founder Leticia Gonzalez-Reyes joked, “It’s so nice to see how independent groups like 109 are making their own path towards the same goal, but in a different way, taking a different avenue. Let’s see who gets there faster.” All jokes aside, when one recounts the shortcomings of the original Millennium Development Goals, it is clear that Leticia and 109 are on to something.
To address the biggest global social and environmental challenges of our time, much of 109’s campaign to engage and connect everyday philanthropists centers on the power of social media. The team firmly believes that everyone can integrate better decisions into their lives and thereby positively impact the world, especially with smart-devices at our fingertips. “The message here is that you can make any type of contribution and that will help change the world, because by doing so [you] are “working together” with thousands of other people toward the same purpose…without even realizing [you] are [a] philanthropist.”
Co-founder Rachel Brathen (popularly known as Yoga Girl) can testify to the enormous influence that social media has had on raising awareness and transforming development dialogue. “A couple years ago, when the whole Yoga Girl thing was new, the most commonly asked questions I would get were, ‘Where do you buy your yoga pants?’, or ‘How can I do a yoga teacher training?’ – Very yoga or superficially based [questions]. Now I get emails asking, ‘How can I volunteer?’, ‘How can I help out?’, ‘How [do you] suggest [I] make a difference in the world?’…There’s a lot of teenagers out there who are seeing [the 109] initiative and, through social media, it’s becoming cool.”
Though social media seems like an obvious tool to the millennial generation, it is often underutilized or poorly utilized by other hopeful change-makers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, 109 has a knack for making global development fashionable. Apparent by their 55.9 thousand Instagram followers, people are interested in thinking about their personal well being and global issues. Thence, the challenge is to inspire Instagrammers to advance awareness of the issues to action.
109 strives to make it easy for people to incorporate socially and environmentally conscious decisions into their daily routines in a manner that suits each individual’s lifestyle. Followers can join a Passion-themed social media challenge which typically involves posting a photo that complies with a set of action items. Day one of the seven-day Water Passion-theme challenge, for example, requested followers to post a photo of themselves carrying five liters, as many women in Africa and Asia must do on a daily basis. Followers can also visit the 109 website where they can find practical tips to promote personal and world betterment. One simple change that everyone can do, for instance, is to get educated on proper food storage. In support of the Food Security Passion, 109 directs people to an infographic that clearly depicts how and where to keep food in the refrigerator. Who doesn’t want to avoid unnecessarily throwing away food and leftovers and save money and energy at the same time?
Another way people can get involved is by participating in a social mission trip. Trips seek to promote the improvement of individuals, the local community, and the world through hands-on projects that address one of the 7 Passions. At the individual volunteer level, social missions offer an opportunity to nurture personal health and wellbeing through yoga and meditation. During project implementation, the volunteers’ positive, open mindset spills over into the local community. Projects are documented and broadcasted on social media which further spreads the contagious attitudes of 109 volunteers and locals to the online community. The idea is that seeds of emotional energy are planted in volunteers on the ground. Those seeds sprout through dialogue and work with other volunteers and community members, then flourish online where 109 followers are inspired to make meaningful changes in their everyday lives and also join a social mission trip if possible.
The Passion-focus of the most recent social mission trip to Nicaragua was Water. Morning yoga sessions led by Rachel were followed by physically demanding afternoon service work – digging, trenching, and trash collection along the shore of Playa Gigante. In collaboration with the local community and 109 partner Aqua Wellness Resort, project volunteers created a water distribution system to supply 1,400 people with a reliable source of safe potable water. From this mission, 109 learned that duties are best decided on and delegated democratically. “It would be nice for the [local] leader to have a team so [power] is not concentrated with one person…so one person is not the only voice for that community,” Leticia reflected during our interview. This lesson, among many more, will help 109 improve their upcoming social mission trips in Ecuador, Mexico, and Aruba.
When asked how 109’s social missions differ from the notion of voluntourism, Leticia replied: “I believe human beings have this catastrophic habit of categorizing everything, segmenting everybody. I don’t think “voluntourism” is a bad thing at all. [A]ctually it’s pretty much aligned with what we do at 109 and what we believe in, which is that today’s massive social, environmental and political challenges are not confined to one country, to one sector, to one organization. They are of global nature and require a global response.” No matter how you categorize them, the 109 movement is shifting the conceptualization of philanthropy from wealthy families and foundations to ordinary people and teaching us that the collective power of individuals can fuel world change.