What are the most impactful non-profits of this generation?

There are perhaps few people better equipped to answer this question than Tom Riley, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. From 2004-2009, Ambassador Riley brought twenty years of Silicon Valley business savvy to his daily tasks in Rabat: helping halt extremism in the region, forging a collaborative bond between Morocco and the United States, and marketing America to the Arab world.

During his appointment as Ambassador, Riley spent time with the Peace Corps and other volunteer efforts on the ground, an experience that gave him an acute sense of which organizations actually make a difference, and which do not.

“You get a feel for it,” Ambassador Riley told IVY. “It’s like interviewing people. If you ask the right questions, you can differentiate between someone who is really making an impact versus someone who is saying, ‘I just need free help.’”

Ambassador Riley seems to have found his non-profit of choice; in 2013, he teamed up with IVY Member Ankur Luthra to support Omprakash, an upgraded version of the Peace Corps, which connects grassroots social impact organizations around the world with an audience of volunteers who can support.

IVY sat down with Ambassador Riley to learn his key insights. 


How is the world of giving changing?

We used to have much better diversity with our aid. We used to give funding to education, health, agriculture, farming—a whole range of things. At the moment, there is a huge influx of funds from the Gates Organization and the United States government and other national funds that are dedicated mostly to improving health care. We’re not just going after AIDS and Ebola, but things that affect other health problems, such as malaria and infant mortality.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence is that we’re now creating even larger problems as a result of that aid. There are many countries in Africa that have huge, growing populations, where in some cases half of the country is under twenty years old. In my opinion, we should be coming in and helping them learn how to feed themselves, manage their resources, and provide jobs. Instead, we’ve provided them with the medicines and techniques so they have even more people and even larger populations that the governments can’t handle.

I hosted the President of Rwanda at a reception at my home recently. Our pattern of aid is akin to us going to him and saying: “Well, Mr. Kagami, you thought you had a problem before, but now we’ve increased the birth rate and population by 2 million people!” Then, we pat ourselves on the back and leave that government with an even more daunting task.

I have to shake my head because we’re really thinking short-term. These are countries often have an unemployment rate of 50%. We leave them with no jobs, and no training – just more people.

Why did you rally behind Omprakash?

I served as ambassador in Morocco as five years—an unusually long time—so I got a chance to be involved in a lot of the projects the Embassy and US Government were doing. One of my favorite experiences was getting to know the Peace Corps. I was so inspired people who would turn down jobs at Citibank to spend years living in unbelievably crude, rudimentary conditions. They voluntarily cut themselves off from pretty much anything, all so that they could make a difference.

When I took a look at Omprakash, I knew it would be fantastic. I’ve seen what this type of program does for a country, and I am sold on what this can do for young volunteers as well. It has all of the good parts of Peace Corps, with some smart changes that make it much more powerful.

There are two main downsides of the Peace Corps; first, you can’t choose where you end up (everyone wants to go to Costa Rica and no one wants to go to Chad) and second, two years is a long time to commit. If you’re close to your family, it’s a problem, and you really can’t be married if you want to join the Peace Corps. Omprakash lets you volunteer for the amount of time you want, and you can learn where you’re going before you go. Our partners on the ground are other non-profits in those countries that have been thoroughly vetted, and you have their ratings online from volunteers.

What makes a real leader?

A real leader is someone who doesn’t appear to be making decisions at all. With a lot of group discussion and guidance, the team just seems to be invisibly drawn to consensus on the best choices. The times I ever felt things were going wrong in business—and I was a CEO for twenty years for different companies—was when I actually had to issue a memo or give a mandate for directions we had to take.

What was your training to be an Ambassador?

My training for being an ambassador was life training. In any administration, one third of Ambassadors are appointed by the President, and the others are career Foreign Service Officers. I was sensitive about being appointed by the President because I wondered if people would resent me for it. What I found was that there were good appointed ambassadors and there were bad ones. The ones who were good didn’t necessarily have all of the Foreign Service training, and maybe didn’t even know all the acronyms at the State Department, but they often had a perspective that the others didn’t have. My perspective was that of a businessman. Most people in government, especially in the in Foreign Service, have never gone into the private sector, so they don’t know what people do in business. They don’t know what it takes to run a grocery store. It’s extremely beneficial to know business.

What’s your best piece of advice?

The most important advice I know is the importance of listening. I see that in business and I certainly see it in diplomacy. People are so ready to pull out talking points that they never give themselves the opportunity to listen and absorb someone else’s point of view. In Morocco, I met with lots of members of Congress who visited Morocco, and I remember one high level politician came on a “Listening Tour.” Literally, that’s what it was called. I was with this person for much of this, and I’ll tell you right now that there was no listening. There were only speeches, just like everyone always does. Listening is something we can all work on.

What’s the next big world problem?

If I had to pick the next world problem, I would say it’s water. There are a lot of big issues—public health, over population, climate change, poverty—but water is such a fundamental resource that’s being stretched all around the globe. It’s instrumental for health, raising crops, and surviving. I used to speak at commencement ceremonies at American high schools in Morocco, and I warned them about water. No one really took it seriously. It was like that moment in The Graduate, when the guy keeps saying, “Plastics.” Water is a resource that just isn’t appreciated.

How can the IVY Community help support your work?

Reach out to Ankur! He’s a great contact. We would love to have people get involved who have energy and enthusiasm. There are lots of volunteer and donation opportunities.

Omprakash creates transformative educational experiences by connecting grassroots social impact organizations around the world with an audience of volunteers, donors, and classrooms that can learn from and support their work. To learn more, connect with IVY Member (SF) Ankur Luthra on IVY. To learn more about IVY, please visit www.ivy.com.