Pando is a clonal colony of a single male Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) located in the U.S. state of Utah, all determined to be part of a single living organism by identical genetic markers and one massive underground root system, although whether it is a single tree is disputed, as it depends on one’s definition of an individual tree.
– “Pando (tree)” Wikipedia
Pando Projects is not about incubating businesses, starting nonprofits, or even developing scalable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems—necessarily. Instead, what we find coming out of a New York is a beautiful new vision for a more inclusive, honest democracy. Interested?
The Pando Projects Concept
Pando Projects, founded by Milena Arciszewski, is deeply influenced by the scathing diatribe NYU professor of economics William Easterly unleashed on mainstream developmental models in 2006 with his treatise The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Easterly’s main issue with existing efforts is that they rely far too much on planners, whose attempts to “figure out” the world underestimate its mechanisms and fall far short of the vast intelligence needed to accurately solve localized problems.
For example, just because I live in New York City doesn’t mean that I know how to create another one in Uganda. New York City is a microcosmic example of the complicated interplay of influences and ideas, failed attempts, and experimentation that has led the West to its relatively stable and prosperous economy today. According to Easterly, development should be led by “searchers,” with the planners playing an auxiliary role to facilitate what every human being on the planet does best—trying to find workable solutions to their own problems.
Arciszewski’s venture is the first I’ve come across that so directly attempts to respond to Easterly’s criticism. While the entire world is slowly realizing that there is no such thing as a silver bullet to global prosperity (it’s not democracy, it’s not the internet, it’s not microfinance, it’s not…) Pando Projects has launched into the other direction, empowering hyperlocal solutions that may apply in as “little” as just one zip code. But the point is that this is okay. National solutions don’t always make sense in every community.
Arciszewski’s conviction to start Pando Projects stems from her own experience at the University of Virginia where, in her own words, she felt “like I was drowning in my good intentions, and that no volunteer program was truly the platform for me to make an impact on this planet.” Too many programs touted themselves as life changing experiences when really the only things being changed were ink cartridges. It was only when she launched her own volunteer project to send books to a university in Afghanistan whose library had burned down that she found what she was looking for: excitement, a fast pace, and, most importantly, relevancy.
She believes that Millenials would rather launch their own initiative than join somebody else’s large, bureaucratic creation. However, the barriers to entry are considerable as necessary logistical time sinks pile responsibilities on to an individual who would rather devote their energy to actually solving the problem. Productive energy that should be harnessed in the time-tested entrepreneurial fashion is dissipated in politicking.
As Arciszewski says, “starting a nonprofit is a huge undertaking. I don’t think everyone needs to start a nonprofit. I think a lot of people just have good ideas that they never pursue, and Pando is the first step for them to pursue that idea.” With mentorship, proof of concept, and initial success, a simple solution carried out by a group of friends and incubated by Pando now has a far greater chance of stretching its wings to take flight.
Pando Projects is an “Angel Incubator”
Even if Pando Projects had a million dollars to spend (which they don’t, social investors take note!) they still wouldn’t provide any funding to its projects. Project leaders must apply to be a “Pando project” and, after acceptance, raise funding on their own. This ensures a high level of commitment from project leaders and the communities in which they raised the money.
Pando then provides mentorship (today offered by volunteers, tomorrow offered by successful project leaders) and logistical support via a technology platform to help organize the fundraising effort, volunteers, communication with stakeholders, and refine the story to ensure the right people hear about it. Quoted from Pando Projects’ own website: “For a true democracy to work, ordinary citizens must come together to develop creative, local solutions to the problems in their communities. Pando Projects offers a digital platform to make this local activism as simple and efficient as possible.”
Pando Projects financially sustains its social impact by charging $25 for project leaders to be a part of the program, as well as taking a cut of all money raised on the Pando platform. This is a standard business model for crowd funding platforms. Arciszewski is considering making this percentage of all money raised an optional donation—a bold “freemium“ mash up whose success I am interested in following.
Although the startup capital required for each micro-project is minimal, with the average amount being $500, once Pando Projects is in full stride it will be continually launching and nurturing hundreds and thousands of projects, with the micro-revenues from each venture adding up to a significant income stream.
Moving Forward: Spreading the Story
The documentary Waiting for Superman’s poignancy was increased by its focus on five individuals instead of adhering to the 50,000 foot, statistical view. Here is one of Pando’s pilot projects:
Ashley Williams is a junior at Columbia University who raised the meager $250 she needed to launch a “Battle of the Books” at an underserved public school in New York—P.S. 145. The reason why she started this project in her own words:
Too often urban public schools like many in New York City do not offer the high quality, academic after school programs that its students need to enrich their curriculum and stimulate learning. I had the chance to participate in Battle of the Books as an elementary student, and I honestly believe it helped me become the avid reader I am today.
Reading between the lines, I would venture that Williams believes it is her interest in reading that molded her into the intellectual she is today—an undergraduate at Columbia—despite a difficult background. Now she would like to bring this gift to as many kids as she can.
This is not a huge, planner-mentality solution to the literacy crisis—although it potentially could be have powerful ramifications beyond just one school if she chooses to scale out after Pando. For now it is a small, meaningful step that will make a significant positive impact in a few children’s lives.
Williams’ idea and passion is a tiny seed that has been scooped up by Pando Projects for careful incubation until it is ready to stand on its own. Arciszewski’s difficult job now is to convey an entire portfolio of such ventures—currently there are 14—and all the fantastic input and output they have galvanized, in order to pique the interest of social investors who will provide the seed capital necessary to allow Arciszewski to hire professional staff (even the website is pro-bono today) and scale out as large as she imagines this can be.
Although its emphasis is hyper-local, a global, well curated Pando Projects—where thousands of individuals are visiting the site each day to read about new projects and the most successful ones are distributed to mainstream media outlets—just may be the channel through which big innovative solutions to the planet’s most pressing problems will be discovered.
via Ashley Williams
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