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A Vision of Sustainable Enterprise

By Tom Watson on July 25, 2007No Comment

A Vision of Sustainable Enterprise
By: Susan Carey Dempsey, 7/25/07

When the Council on Foundations honored the Seva Foundation with one of its new Critical Impact Awards earlier this month, it shone the spotlight on an organization that was breaking ground on social entrepreneurship 25 years ago. Seva was cited for “revolutionizing the ability of community based eye care programs to restore eyesight for poor people affected by cataract blindness” through its work in helping to create Aurolab, the manufacturing division of Aravind Eye Hospital, in Mandurai, India.

Seva, under the leadership of Dr. Larry Brilliant, provided funding, technical expertise and operational support that enabled Aurolab to pioneer new methods of manufacturing high quality, low cost intraocular lenses (IOLs), which are essential to fully restore the eyesight of cataract patients. Previously, IOLs had been too expensive for use in public health eye care programs in developing countries. Today, Aurolab IOLs sell for about $5 each, compared with $100 to $150 at typical market prices – making it possible for millions of poor people around the world to enjoy excellent vision
following cataract surgery.

With Seva’s support, Aurolab has become a self-sustaining enterprise that continues to thrive, carrying on its own research and development work and selling a variety of medical products in most countries of the world. Although Aurolab no longer requires funding from Seva, it continues to collaborate with Seva volunteer advisors on marketing, new technologies and other needs.

Recently, Dr. Brilliant was named Executive Director of, which administers Google’s philanthropic activities. His successor is Mark Lancaster, who had previously helped turn Heifer International from a small nonprofit to a world renowned international organization. Heifer is best known for giving animals to poverty stricken communities and teaching them how to use these animals to sustain themselves for the longer term.

Lancaster has spent most of his professional career in the nonprofit sector. So when you ask him what he thinks about philanthropy, you might be surprised at his answer:
“Philanthropy has a bad name, sometimes, when it’s equated with rich people’s hand-me-downs. But money is just one aspect. It has to be a partnership of equity. We’re all better off when every child is fed, when every person has sight. Money is just a tool.”

Seva was one of the pioneers in social entrepreneurship decades ago. We asked Lancaster whether the Critical Impact Award, one of five announced in June, reflects the impact Seva has had on the proliferation of social entrepreneurship programs in the nonprofit sector today. “The Council on Foundations has recognized that there are best practices in philanthropy,” he said,  “that when you share financial resources, you can be part of a process that creates critical impact.”

The Critical Impact Award, in its inaugural year, was created to “…recognize those who truly make a difference in their grantmaking while sharing with the public examples of how philanthropy seeks to enhance the common good.” In a statement announcing the five winners, Steve Gunderson, President and CEO of the Council on Foundations said, “These foundations have demonstrated the commitment and vision needed to address the important issues affecting society and are helping to advance the common good, not only in our local communities but throughout the world.”
Seva has grown and adapted over the years from the original vision of Dr. Larry Brilliant and a group of medical students from the University of Michigan seeking to eradicate smallpox. “Those medical students,” said Lancaster, “were challenged by the Centers for Disease Control to do more as doctors than make money. They took up the challenge and it happened. That is the compelling vision.”

We asked Lancaster what changes, if any, he could foresee in guiding Seva to new challenges in its fourth decade. While continuing to grow, he indicated, Seva would remain true to the philosophy upon which it was founded: “The original vision, 30 years ago, reflected the belief that, in the end, nobody really wants charity. It’s a dehumanizing process.”

Seva’s sight program partnerships, built on mutual respect, share the goal of making quality eye care services affordable and accessible to everyone. Seva sight programs prevent blindness and restore sight by supporting locally-run programs in developing countries. In addition to its eye care programs, Seva also works with indigenous communities in Guatemala and Mexico, along with Native American communities — supporting projects in the area of health and wellness, community development, environmental protection and cultural preservation.

Asked how he’d like to see the image of philanthropy updated, Lancaster summed up: “We’re all better when we’re all better. Only as we share, do we become changed persons. That’s what I get excited about.”

For more information on the Seva Foundation, visit

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