Maya Ajmera M.P.P. '93

Helping children around the world
November 30, 2006
Maya Ajmera M.P.P. '93

Global Fund for Children

Growing up as the daughter of Indian immigrants in eastern North Carolina, Maya Ajmera always felt like a citizen of two different worlds. As the founder and president of the Global Fund for Children (GFC) she has discovered a way to bring those worlds together—and change kids' lives for the better.

GFC's mission is to advance the dignity of children and youth around the world. It does so by supporting community organizations that work with vulnerable groups like street kids, AIDS orphans, and child laborers. When Ajmera started GFC in 1994, she had a new M.P.P. degree, an Echoing Green public-service fellowship (Echoing Green provides seed grants to promising social entrepreneurs), a desk in the Sanford Institute of Public Policy, and, in her words, "some hallucinogenic optimism." Twelve years later, the nonprofit has an operating budget of nearly $6 million, one office in Washington, and another slated to open in London next year.

Last year it made nearly $2 million in small grants to 157 grassroots groups serving children in sixty-one countries. Since 1997, the group has given 969 grants, valued at nearly $5 million.

"The vision for the GFC all came together at Duke," Ajmera says. Following her public-policy studies, she had planned to enter medical school. But after traveling in southeast Asia and soaking up ideas about social change in developing countries at Duke's Center for International Development, Ajmera began to imagine another path. "I was around some extraordinarily talented and diverse people who had a lot of experience and helped me think through the idea," she says.

After graduation, Ajmera drafted a two-page proposal to create the Global Fund for Children. She turned to professor William Ascher, then director of the Center for International Development, for advice. "Teachers have that power to say yes or no," Ajmera recalls. "He said yes, and I didn't go to medical school." Ascher and Tony Brown, professor of the practice at Sanford, became founding board members of GFC.

From the outset, the organization sought to raise the money it would give away through royalties from its own publishing venture. The first book Ajmera tried to publish was Children from Australia to Zimbabwe: A Photographic Journey Around the World. Like other GFC titles (there are now twenty), it blends gorgeous color photography with positive messages about diversity. Early attempts to market the book were a failure.

Making a leap of faith, Ajmera published the book herself in 1996. It sold well, and GFC channeled the profits toward projects. "With the first check we got, we put our money where our mouth was and made grants," Ajmera says.

The first went to the Train Platform Schools in Bhubaneswar, India, which bring learning opportunities to destitute children living and working around city train stations. "To educate forty kids with two teachers cost around $600 a year," Ajmera says.

Sensing there were other innovators discovering low-cost ways to educate kids, GFC began to find and fund them. They also landed key support from foundations and individuals, including many in the Duke community. "Small amounts of money do big things in the developing world," Ajmera says.

In May 2006, GFC received an Oprah's Book Club Award. The $50,000 award, announced during The Oprah Winfrey Show, allowed the free distribution of 17,000 books to children in war-torn countries and areas where poverty or violence remain a daily reality.

In 2005, for the second consecutive year, GFC earned Charity Navigator's highest rating of four stars. The ranking is based on GFC's solid financial position and steady growth. But its founder's willingness to take risks has shaped its success from the start.