How This Foundation is Bringing Power to the People

We've been saying for a while now that bringing electrical power to poor countries, and in a sustainable way, will be one of the top philanthropic projects of coming decades. As Rachel Pritzker and Mike Berkowitz wrote not long ago, electricity is "fundamental to the wide array of issues that contemporary philanthropy is concerned with, including health, education, women's empowerment, and poverty."

Yet, while the Rockefeller Foundation is already on the case in a big way, there's not a lot of other major funders in this space. Meanwhile, energy poverty is a very real and alarming problem. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), over 1.3 billion people live without regular access to electricity. That's a staggering 18 percent of our global population. 

Enter the GivePower Foundation. Established in 2014, GivePower is the nonprofit arm of American solar energy service provider SolarCity—an Elon Musk venture—and it does pretty much exactly what its name implies: 

GivePower addresses energy poverty by providing solar-powered lighting to schools that lack access to electricity. Our projects are providing renewable energy and light to hundreds of schools in impoverished communities in Africa, Asia and Central America.

The brainchild of SolarCity employee Hayes Barnard, now the foundation's president, GivePower was established to put its solar power know-how to work by giving back to communities in need. Their concept is simple: for every megawatt of solar power SolarCity installs in the United States, GivePower makes a donation of light to one school in need.

But if you thought this story was about bringing solar energy to the developing world, you’d only be half right.

It's also about “empowering education through solar energy," according to the foundation. Keeping in mind those 1.3 billion people without power, consider that of those, 290 million are children who attend schools without electricity.

Through the donation and installation of solar panels, batteries and lighting, GivePower is allowing schools to operate beyond daylight hours, giving children more opportunities to learn, and creating an evening gathering place for the entire community. And with just one year under its belt, GivePower has brought light to over 500 schools in Africa and Central America, far exceeding even its own expectations.

Beyond just giving the man the proverbial fish, GivePower is also training local residents on how to install and maintain these solar energy systems, hoping they will in turn share that knowledge with surrounding communities and spur new avenues for independent economic development.

Until now, GivePower had been funding its programs exclusively through SolarCity profits. Earlier this month, it announced that as a newly minted 501(c)(3), it would be accepting public donations—beginning with a $500,000 gift from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

According to a press release announcing the donation, the new funding will allow GivePower to “provide light to an additional 1,000 schools, totaling more than 1,500 schools by the end of 2015.” Noting that this year, GivePower plans to focus its attention on remote, off-grid communities in Mali, Nicaragua, Kenya, Haiti, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Nepal, and Ghana.

For its part, the Bank of America Foundation calls the partnership part of a “broader strategy to help finance the transition to lower-carbon economies” and “solidifying their commitment to environmental philanthropy focused on carbon emission reductions, access to clean water and research and innovation.”

To say that power is empowering is as lousy a pun as it is an understatement. But in just a single year, GivePower has literally brought light into the lives of thousands of impoverished people. With broad applications and profound implications for improving the quality of life for many in the developing world, the future for GivePower and the communities it serves, is looking bright.