Jennifer Staple-Clark built Unite for Sight from a dorm room-based student group into a world-renowned global non-profit, serving 1.5 million patients and facilitating more than 63,000 sight-restoring surgeries in Ghana, India and Honduras.
Unite for Sight’s impact has made Staple-Clark an internationally recognized leader in the realms of global health and social entrepreneurship. I spoke with her recently about her organization and its related programs. In Part 1 of our discussion, she explained its unique model, and how she built a small student organization into an acclaimed NGO. In Part 2, she discusses Unite for Sight’s innovative revenue-generating programs, and how the organization harnesses its volunteer, research and fundraising efforts to support its mission.
James Militzer: Some social enterprises have identified eye care as an especially favorable specialty within health care, because it brings noticeable results and is easy to sell to patients. Why did you decide to be a non-profit instead of going the social enterprise route?
Jennifer Staple-Clark: From the onset, we have not really considered a for-profit focus, because we decided that we would really focus on those hardest-to-reach patients, and we want to ensure that we’re eliminating barriers and not generating any additional barriers for those patients living in extreme poverty.
But within that non-profit realm, we also always want to have our organization be self-sustaining, and really using standard business practices in that way. We have four program divisions, each of them being revenue-generating. The first one, as I’d mentioned, is the student chapters that also fundraise for the organization - 100 percent of that goes directly to funding all the surgeries and eye care expenses internationally. Then we’re providing health education resources through Global Health University, and again 100 percent of that revenue goes towards those international programs. Then our volunteer abroad program, with 250 to 300 volunteers per year - they also are required to fundraise. So it’s not specifically a program fee, but instead they have a minimum fundraising requirement of $1800. But many of them go well beyond that - we had a volunteer recently who raised almost $7000 in just a week for the program. And again, 100 percent of that goes directly toward our international programs.
And then we have our annual Global Health and Innovation Conference, which is coming up in April, and it’s the world’s largest global health and social entrepreneurship conference, convening 2200 people from all 50 states and more than 50 countries. And that also is revenue-generating. We put that towards our international programs, but we are also able to fund our administrative expenses from that revenue as well. So 100 percent of all donations to Unite for Sight goes directly to the international programs, because we’re able to utilize a piece of the Global Health Conference revenue for all of our other expenses.
JM: Was the original goal of the conference to produce revenue?
JSC: The goal, actually, was to develop an educational forum, and to exchange ideas across many different disciplines. Because there are so many conferences that really focus on one specific area: TB, for example, or HIV, or eye care. But there wasn’t really a forum where people from so many different disciplines could convene and exchange ideas - and that’s really the best way to advance strategies across all these disciplines. So we have a range of different speakers from social enterprises and fair trade organizations, and then we also have purely health care-oriented speakers, and purely international development speakers. So there can be these different strategies developed and exchanged across all of the organizations and programs.
JM: Talk a bit more about the Global Health University – what is it and how did you start it?
JSC: I’d talked about the Global Impact Fellow volunteers that we have. They complete a number of pre-departure requirements, which include global health training, so that when they’re arriving abroad, they have a good understanding about the different barriers to care and health education strategies that they’ll see in action with the patients and local doctors that they’ll be working with.
So we developed a comprehensive training program with a number of different online courses for our own volunteers. And they’ve always been freely and publicly available. And we were finding that a lot of people were using those resources who are not involved with our organization – including universities that were requiring their students to read those resources before participating in different study abroad programs, or even as part of courses on their own campus. So that’s how we realized that there really is a need for resources that focus on effective strategies in the field, and that led us to develop Global Health University.
We now have close to 20 different certificate programs, and about 100 online courses, ranging from effective visual communication resources for health care delivery, to certificates in social entrepreneurship and responsible NGO management. All of those resources continue to be freely available online, and people can also submit a small registration fee and enroll in a certificate program.
JM: I understand your volunteers sometimes perform research. Is that mainly to improve your outreach services, or to advance the field of knowledge in general?
JSC: We work very closely with a lot of our volunteers to develop and implement research studies that are IRB approved, and those research studies enable us and our local partners to further eliminate barriers to care. Because of course there are the broad financial, transportation, and education and awareness barriers. But we’re really working to understand how best to reach those hardest-to-reach patients.
For example, in Ghana, a lot of patients that were coming for our outreaches were adults. But of course, adults usually have children within their household. So why were the adults coming to receive eye care but not just bringing along their children to get an eye exam as well? A research study was conducted - and we’re continuing it on a more robust scale now - to better understand why those parents or grandparents are not bringing the children. And the results from that study are helping the local eye clinics to develop educational models and practices for adult patients with children at home, and similarly, to train teachers to help identify eye conditions among their own students within the classroom. That’s just one example of these different research studies that are further developing local capacity.
This research is immediately utilized by our local eye clinic partners to develop new ideas and new strategies. And we encourage the volunteers that are pursuing this research to publish it and present it at conferences as well, because it does distribute that knowledge much more broadly beyond Unite for Sight’s partners. We have a lot of volunteers who publish in peer-reviewed journals, and also present at various conferences. And a lot of times the strategies and understanding about these barriers to care can be applied to many other fields within health care as well.
JM: What are your plans for the future?
JSC: We’re constantly working to reach those hardest-to-reach patients in the communities where we work, and to further build up the local capacity with the eye clinics we’re working with in Ghana, India and Honduras. And every few years, we think about and develop new partnerships with additional eye clinic partners.
So our goal is to constantly increase our reach. Because there are currently about 36 million people who are needlessly blind throughout the world. And as we impact individual patients, it also impacts families. For example, a lot of adults who are blind are not able to work or contribute to the family income, and that leaves them in a constant cycle of poverty. And similarly, if an adult is entirely, bilaterally blind, they often need a caretaker, and that caretaker is often a child in the family. So that child can’t attend school, and then can’t earn a good income in the future, and again it keeps that family in a cycle of poverty. We know that as each individual patient regains their sight, there are huge impacts within their family, within their community, and within their entire country.
Check out Unite for Sight’s Facebook page “Dispatches from Crystal Eye Clinic’s Unite for Sight Outreaches” for daily updates and photos from their work in one local clinic in Ghana.