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Going Bold: The 2014 Kravis Prize in Leadership to Helen Keller International

Posted June 18, 2014 in News

By Taryn Akiyama ‘14 and Stephanie Haft ‘15

According to the selection criteria defined by the Kravis Prize Selection Committee, nominees for the Kravis Prize in Leadership must demonstrate “bold” leadership. This descriptor lends itself to several interpretations. “Bold” can mean leading a nonprofit that has a large impact – collectively, the prize winners have been estimated to positively affect more than 500 million people in over 60 countries. “Bold” can refer to the social problem that the nonprofit addresses – this may span the gamut from economic development to human rights education. “Bold” may also simply refer to the leader of the organization – the Kravis Prize has traditionally been awarded to those individuals who exhibit exemplary, visionary leadership. The Selection Committee takes these quantitative and qualitative measures into account, chooses an annual recipient, and awards them with $250,000. Marie-Josée Kravis explained, “We try to focus on impact, not only on input. So not only what a program costs, but what a program delivers.” Fulfilling both of these elements, Helen Keller International received the 2014 Kravis Prize in Leadership.

Helen Keller International (HKI), founded in 1915 by Helen Keller and George Kessler, is on the cusp of celebrating its 100-year anniversary. During this time, HKI has boasted a myriad of accomplishments and a range of programs operating in 22 countries in the Africa and Asia-Pacific regions in addition to the United States. Studies by HKI have discovered the harrowing fact that out of the estimated 285 million people who are blind or visually impaired, 80 percent of these could have been prevented. HKI’s programs are grounded in solid scientific evidence and research that are continually tested and evaluated to advance their results.

One of HKI’s most impactful programs is the distribution of vitamin A capsules to children and lactating mothers in order to decrease blindness and child mortality. Each year, approximately 500,000 children go blind due to vitamin A deficiency, which weakens the immune system and increases the risk of death from illnesses including malaria, diarrhea, and measles. HKI has taken the initiative to solve this problem by reaching 50 million children each year in Africa and Asia and distributing bi-annual treatments of vitamin A. The total cost – including manufacturing the capsules, training health workers, and traveling to various countries – is a mere $1 a year per child. The World Bank, unsurprisingly, calls this the most cost effective public health intervention.

Building upon the successful vitamin A program, HKI launched the homestead food production program, which looked beyond treating blindness to address the larger challenge of malnutrition. Studies have shown that malnutrition affects 2 billion people around the world and is responsible for 45% of deaths of children under 5 years old. HKI sought to improve malnutrition through this homestead food production program in a cost-effective, locally adapted, and sustainable way. HKI empowers women to plant gardens where they can grow nutritious fruits and vegetables year round, and even raise chickens and fish. With the surplus food from their gardens, these women sell to local markets and contribute to the financial stability of their families.

HKI found the recognition of its programs incredibly meaningful, as the components of the Kravis Prize in Leadership are extremely far-reaching. Kathy Spahn, President and CEO of HKI, emphasized not only her gratitude for receiving the award, but for joining the Kravis Prize family comprised of collective winners since its inception. Spahn elucidated, “It’s about this incredibly generous prize, but also so much more because we’re all working together and learning from each other. It’s a phenomenal thing to be a part of such a community.”

Perhaps the most visible impact to Claremont McKenna College students, faculty, and alumni are the annual presentations and panel discussion given by Kravis Prize recipients on CMC’s campus that spread awareness about the organizations and their missions. The organizations of Prize recipients also function as internships for CMC students through the Kravis Leadership Institute Partnered Internship Program, allowing them the opportunity to lead projects and bring visions to fruition. Finally, the Kravis Prize aids in student and faculty research in the area of nonprofit impact and organization. Tawney Hughes ’14 used the Kravis Prize recipients as subjects for her senior year thesis, specifically focusing on the leadership style of the individuals. In explaining the importance of the Kravis Prize, Hughes emphasized the incredible exposure and interactions that CMC students are offered: “These are not just successful organizations or individuals, but they are spirited and ambitious people who use their unparalleled talents to tackle the world’s most pressing problems — real bold leaders. We see for the first time that it is really possible to combat global poverty, health, land rights, and all the issues that really matter. I’m not sure there is anything more important to learn in college.”

Helen Keller International, the 2014 Kravis Prize in Leadership winner, is no exception to this criterion of “bold” leadership. Its diversity of programs across the globe that tackle much larger issues than blindness and its ability to find cost-effective and sustainable solutions backed by science makes HKI a leader among nonprofits. HKI is a fantastic addition to the Kravis Prize family, and an inspiration to the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurs at CMC. HKI truly exemplifies the words of its founder, Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”