Alight, formerly the American Refugee Committee, is the 40-year-old Minneapolis-based refugee assistance and development agency that was started to assist those fleeing in war-torn Southeast Asia. It also was recently named to Fast Company’s annual list of the World’s Most Innovative  Companies for 2019, rare for a humanitarian nonprofit. Alight CEO Daniel Wordsworth, a 10-year veteran who has pushed change through the organization after 12 years with the Christian Children’s Fund, said “breakthrough solutions for refugees and the marginalized are way overdue …” Alight, which employs 2,000 people in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Central America, operates on a budget of $75 million supplied by the United Nations, the U.S. and other governments and private philanthropy. Wordsworth, who once worked on startups in China and started his career in the Australian Royal Navy, noted the new, innovative solutions are needed to assist the 258 million people fleeing war, hunger, poverty or other maladies.
Q: To what extent do you work with business people to help those displaced help themselves?
A: Displaced people have more drive and ideas for changing their lives than we ever could. We’re always trying to keep our ears out for great ideas and then match them with just the right person or group of people who are leaning in and looking for meaningful ways to help. There have been some amazing recent examples. One is In Uganda’s Nakivale Refugee Settlement. We Can Learn — the nonprofit foundation of Bloomington-based online learning company Edmentum — raised the funds to build Rubondo Secondary School. On graduating primary school, hundreds of kids in the community were dropping out because the nearest high school was just too far away. This happened year after year, for decades, and children and families in Rubondo were suffering as a result. In just its first year, the Rubondo school has 85 students — a 2,000% increase in the community’s high school enrollment.
Another example is in Nyabiheke Refugee Camp in Rwanda where a group of young people wanted a computer lab where they could develop computer skills and connect to the world around them. A group of Minnesotans helped … they funded the construction of a lab and all of the equipment to fill it. And then when we found a technology partner in Kigali-based kLab who could pilot a coding school at the computer lab. The Minnesotans [funded] scholarships for 32 refugee youth to become A+ coders and develop skills that can change their futures.
Q: What’s the importance of the Fast Company recognition?
A: The recognition that we are trying to push the envelope and improve. We chose to disrupt ourselves. For the last 10 years.
Q: What’s different?
A: Close is the new large. In the 20th century it was about being large. It’s now about adapting to what the customer needs and wants daily. [Our social enterprise in eastern Congo] Asili uses human-scale design. The clean water and the health clinics are working. Generating health and economy. We did four and we’re expanding. It’s no longer about bare minimum standards. Now we are trying to provide something worthy of the people. We let agencies rate us like others rate restaurants and taxis. We have a staff and refugees and donors unleashed to solve problems. The way we got better schooling was to bring in a private organization [Edmentum] combined with teachers and kids in the village. Global online learning.
Q: What about leveraging government funds, such as USAID grants, with entrepreneurial funding and enterprise?
A: Our best example of this is probably Asili. We codesigned Asili alongside Congolese mothers to be a place where all of us would feel confident to bring our children to receive health care and medication when they’re sick and safe, clean water. In a landscape of failed international development projects, Asili was born from — and is run by — the people. And they pay for the services they use. That’s the enterprise part of the social enterprise, and the reason why other clinics and projects will come and go, but Asili will last.
Q: You have a new app you are using in refugee camps that lets people rate the work you’re doing.
A: When we began letting refugees in to create and design with us, one of the first things we thought was that everyone should be able to let us know if we’re doing a good job or a bad job. Why can’t they get on an app and say I’m happy with that or I’m not happy with that. And so that’s where Kuja Kuja came from — it means “come come” in Swahili. Every day we ask refugees “Were you happy with us?” They can give us a smiley face if they were satisfied or a frowny face if they weren’t. And then we ask them if they have an idea for how we could improve our services. We publish the data in the community and put it all up on the www.kujakuja.com website for the whole world to see.