In Exponent Philanthropy’s “Hall of Outsized Impact,” it is a little surprising to see mention of philanthropic support to Mongolia. Although located next to China, Mongolia was in the Soviet orbit until the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. Mongolia’s transition from socialism to capitalism was fraught with crisis, much like the disruptions faced by other former socialist countries, but with its own distinctive challenges due to location, natural resources, and more.
Enter the Mona Foundation, focused on “supporting grassroots educational initiatives and raising the status of girls and women worldwide.” This foundation was established by followers of the Baha’i faith and named after a 16-year-old girl, a Baha’i follower, who was executed in Iran in 1983 for her faith and for teaching children’s classes in an orphanage where she had volunteered since she was 13. With the courage that we now associate with Malala Yousafzai, Mona Mahmudnizhad was one of ten women hanged thirty years ago for the crime of believing in the Baha’i faith, largely rooted in Iran, and believing in the education of young women. Sadly, it was reported this year that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had begun excavating and in doing so desecrating the historic Baha’i cemetery where Mona’s remains lie.
Why would a foundation established by Baha’is take note of education issues in Mongolia? The Mona Foundation actually supports initiatives in eight countries currently (with projects in 18 countries over the history of the foundation), dedicated to investing in girls’ education in the belief that that is a crucial means of alleviating and ultimately eradicating poverty thoughout the developing world. For many countries, the Mona Foundation’s commitment to universal education and gender equality is revolutionary, a belief system that both Mona gave her life for and Malala risked hers.
The highlighted project at the Exponent Philanthropy conference was the Mona Foundation’s support of the Mongolian Development Centre, specifically its Early Childhood Development Program. Mona’s support has been used to help the MDC go about rebuilding Mongolia’s early childhood education infrastructure and other educational and community empowerment initiatives. According to the “Hall of Outsized Impact” poster, the expanded early childhood development program has served 7,300 children in 41 kindergartens, with an approximately one-fourth increase in the number of children, classes, and number of participating teachers. Mona’s support has also kindled expansion of MDC’s Junior Youth program and with several years of support boosted the MDC’s Community Banking Microfinance Initiative.
What strikes us about the Mona Foundation’s program in Mongolia is twofold. One is that small, domestic foundations like the Mona Foundation can reach across the world with vital small grants. If these grants are not “one-offs” but programs that lead to consistent capacity-building support, the impact can be as important in Ulan Bator as anything the foundation might do in its home community of Kirkland, Washington.
The other point is about the nature of what is a small foundation. In this instance, it isn’t, as many people might believe, the grantmaking vehicle of a high net worth person or family. Rather, Mona is the creation of people who share a belief system, in this case focused on social justice for young women around the world. This foundation’s founders and board members have devoted their energies, their fundraising capacities, and probably their own moneys as well to generate resources for its social justice mission. Our guess is that Mona Mahmudnizhad and Malala Yousafzai would be proud of the work of this small grantmaker.