By Danielle Spears
On April 2, Mandy Moore opened talks in Price Center in front of a crowd of about 100 for a plenary meeting regarding global hunger and obesity issues. TV personality Lorena Garcia of NBC’s “America’s Next Great Restaurant” hosted the plenary discussion with questions for the featured panelists. On the panel were global health and nutrition activists Ellen Gustafson, Raj Patel, and Mark Arnoldy. Highlights from the meeting included tips on how to take advantage of business opportunities within personal projects and a discussion on the rift in politics between activists fighting hunger and those fighting obesity.
As excited students rushed to see former president Clinton’s closing remarks at RIMAC Arena, Mark Arnoldy graciously sat down with PROSPECT to answer some questions. While attending the University of Colorado, Boulder, Arnoldy established Nepal NUTrition, an incredibly successful non-profit organization. His business helps nurture malnourished children in the poorest areas of Nepal back to health by producing and distributing a specially fortified peanut butter to those in need. A winner of the CGIU Commitment Award for 2009, Arnoldy was rewarded $5,000 for machinery and materials by the Pat Tillman Foundation, and he has since been invited back to provide his insights to student projects.
PROSPECT: When did your relationship with CGIU begin?
ARNOLDY: I was one of the feature commitments at CGIU in 2009 and it was at the closing ceremony, so we got a picture with Clinton and a plaque. And he happened to mention us on Larry King Live later that week also.
PROSPECT: Yeah, no big deal, right?
ARNOLDY: [laughs] Yeah.
PROSPECT: What are the most important aspects of fundraising to you? What do students need to focus on?
ARNOLDY: Okay, where to start with fundraising? Fundraising’s tough. Even for fundraising professionals, it’s still a very, very difficult job. I like to think about it like this: harvest the low hanging fruit. So, apply for every single grant that is uniquely suited for your cause. If you’re a student working in a particular country, go track those down and harvest that fruit. Those are the opportunities you have the best chance at. Second, you have to build what we call in the business world ‘brand equity.’ You have to build credibility by having a few key evangelists for your cause. I wouldn’t advocate a shotgun approach per se for fundraising, because you aren’t going to be successful. It’s not a good use of your time. But finding a few credible individualists, even uber activists — that will take a lot of that work off your hands. Think of investing in a small amount of people rather than investing a small amount spread across everyone you know. That would be a practical time saving constraint.
PROSPECT: Are you saying to delegate work to people who you think would take it on?
ARNOLDY: Absolutely. If you sell what you do with soul, people will be naturally attracted to it because of their personal experience with your issue. And then, you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time with those individuals and let them do that work for you. Let them tell your story, because they can reach a whole different set of the population.
PROSPECT: How did you find these uber activists for Nepal NUTrition?
ARNOLDY: It was actually a little by chance for me. I had one particular professor who really resonated with this issue, because he had seen similar problems in Kenya and he was my greatest asset on campus. I mean, he would reach across school into different departments, he would go to the business school when we needed to do presentations, and get frequent flier miles for our organization…just really amazing. You have to be aware of it to recognize it.
PROSPECT: How do students get better access to resources?
ARNOLDY: It’s almost a misnomer to say that we lack resources. I think maybe we don’t have the skills or the wisdom to know how to find those resources yet. But you know, our university campuses are some of the most resource-rich places in the entire world. Also, this is a point in our life where we can choose to completely restructure everything we do to be supportive or an advocate for a cause or to start some kind of business. Every single business class you have can be to the pragmatic outcome of actually creating a business. Every honors thesis you structure can be very much about your work here or anywhere around the world. There are tons of grants, tons of fellowships. I mean, I went to the University of Colorado, Boulder and we had undergraduate research opportunities, fellowships, etc. So I think it’s a bit of a misnomer to say we don’t have resources as students. But I would say that I think finding time is a challenge. You have to make a firm decision and essentially restructure your life. I made this my honors thesis and I decided to take a year off.
PROSPECT: How did this idea ever even come up?
ARNOLDY: Wow, that’s a great story, actually. The irony of my work is that I’m actually allergic to nuts. So my first trip to Nepal, I had an allergic reaction and a near-death experience. It gave me a glimpse and some insight into what it feels like to be in Nepal and denied access to life-saving care. I had no idea where a hospital was, ambulances weren’t functioning, and I had just had an enormous amount of Cashew sauce. It was rare experience as a foreigner, because usually you would just be whisked away to a high-profile hospital, but that wasn’t the case on this day because there was a strike going on. That’s the crazy beginning of all of this because had that reaction never occurred, I probably never would have taken interest in this idea of the fortified peanut butter being able to save lives. This is the great irony of the work: the very product that brings me death can deliver life to tens of thousands of children. So I decided to act on it.
PROSPECT: Interesting! And what were you in Nepal for?
ARNOLDY: I’d been invited by a mutual friend, because I was working at a small non-profit in Denver called the Orbis Institute with some work on education. Something about working in areas of the most desperate need has always appealed to me.
PROSPECT: Can you describe the evolution of your role in this business? You began as a student and you’ve passed the initial period of surprise and excitement. What is it like taking an idea and growing it?
ARNOLDY: Well, first I just thought of myself as an observer and a researcher because as a good student that’s what I was always told to be. That got pretty boring pretty quickly because I realized that nobody was actually doing anything. It was very clear that only 1 percent of kids had access to treatment. It was very clear that an affordable, proven product existed and I didn’t really think we needed a lot of observing to go on. I admit that I think my original path to this work was a little bit naïve in the sense that I wanted to start this social business in a socially responsible way. It was a little bit idealistic and also naïve. However, once I found the appropriate partner, that became more realistic and actually that is the wedge through which we got involved in this work. We wanted the local producers to drive down the cost of the product to increase access to treatment. We were grappling with the issue of it being too expensive or not sustainable, so we just said, ‘we’re going to produce it in the country, drive down the cost, and then it will be accessible.’ But then, a big private company became interested in producing the product as well. So we tried to work out a partnership with them for a long time — that’s still kind of ongoing. That’s actually ended up being the slowest part of this work: the local production fees. But that’s how we got initially interested. You know, it wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always rewarding, just being incredibly frustrated with how slow it is.
PROSPECT: Do you see the company expanding into other countries?
ARNOLDY: I won’t be involved in that; I think it could happen. It’s not clear how much it will grow right now, although there is some intent there. I’m phasing out of this work this year. I’ll stay on in a board advisory role because I’m moving on to lead a healthcare organization actually, still in Nepal.
PROSPECT: Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
ARNOLDY: [laughs] There’s a lot actually but I’m trying to think of the right thing to include. I think this is going to plague a lot of student-driven projects. There’s a big difference between the planners and the do-ers in projects. This is a Bill Easterly concept – he wrote about this in The White Man’s Burden. Planners are often vocations of privilege very much far removed from the actual on-the-ground situation. I think I was definitely ambitious in my planner mode initially. I mean, the language I used in those initial stages was pretty much absurd; looking back from having more on-the-ground experience I’m thinking, why did I ever think I could do that? At the same time, being young people allows you to make some mistakes and it was inspiring to say well, ok, this guy might be a little full of it but he’s trying to do something big. And I think that did attract some attention and drew people to the work. But if I did it again I would absolutely be more humble in my presentation actually. Humble but ambitious, rather than blindly ambitious.
PROSPECT: What’s your new venture?
ARNOLDY: It’s really not a venture. It’s more traditional non-profit social justice work. I’m sure readers are familiar with the work of Partners in Health. Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr. Jim Ken co-founded this organization that originally was located in central Haiti. Now they work in numerous countries. They kind of disproved a lot of conventional thinking about how you deliver healthcare to very poor rural populations. And so the work I’m going to do is with an organization called Nyaya Health that means Justice in Health. We actually belong to a network: We all implement the Partners in Health model in different countries around the world, and have become Partners in Health-supported projects. We’re trying to collaborate and disprove the idea that non-profits have to be sharks in the water competing for the same funding. We’re really trying to improve that model because we all believe in taking a social justice approach to healthcare delivery. And so that’s the work I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be moving in as the executive director of Nyaya Health, and that will be based out of Boston with two visits to Nepal per year.
Photo courtesy of Ubo Pakes.