Blind Date with Sabriye: One of Oprah’s Phenomenal Women

IMG_1210Sabriye Tenberken is legally blind and loves talking about colors.

One of Oprah’s “must-see” women, I recently had coffee with her at kanthari, an organization that she and her partner, Paul Kronenberg, has created in India to give leadership training for  social visionaries around the globe.

The setting is  picturesque. Fresh water lakes filled with lotus flowers surround her brick-layered office where she works tirelessly to nurture a cohort of people who she hopes will become the next change agents, social visionaries or great entrepreneurs.

Growing up in the margins of society in Germany, as a young, girl, she was told that she wouldn’t do much in life because of her blindness. After taking classes at Bonn University, she trekked the Himalayas on horseback and moved to Tibet alone when she was 27. Here, the ill-treatment of the blind made her radically change how Tibetans’ viewed people with blindness. Together with Paul, she founded  Braille without Borders and established scores of schools for the blind in Tibet.

Budding change-makers at Kanthari.
Budding change-makers at Kanthari.

After a seven-year stint, Sabriye and Paul moved to Kerala, India, to start kanthari. In the local Malayalam language, kanthari is  an extremely spicy  green chilly commonly seen in the backyards of homes in India’s southernmost state. They chose Kerala as the Indian state sits like a springboard to Asia and Africa on the world map.

Sabriye passionately told me about her fondness for colors and the 5 colors of Kanthari. These are her tenets for social change and her views on creating change-makers. The first color, orange, consists of social entrepreneurs like one of her graduates, Ojok Simon, a blind person from Uganda who endured torture. After receiving leadership training at kanthari, he returned to Uganda and has set up a highly successful bee co-operative.

Her second color, red, symbolizes social activists like one of her students, Jane Waithera, a person with albinism who fights discrimination faced by albinos in Tanzania and Kenya.  The third is green, showing individuals who want to set up new initiatives within their communities like schools and training centers. One of these green kantharis is Tiffany Brar who runs a mobile school for the blind in Kerala.

Sabriye’s next pick is yellow. Yellow kantharis create new products, strategies or concepts for social change. They can be active in the areas of environment, computer technology, accessibility for people with disabilities, agriculture, education and many more.

The final color is purple, representing artists who use their skills to create awareness and social change. Tamas Barko from Hungary is a purple kanthari who uses dance to create a positive impact.

Today, kanthari takes people from margins of society and empowers them to become social catalysts through a 7-month intensive program. They can turn out to follow paths shown by any one of the 5 colors.

Over the past 5 years, 98 participants from 35 countries have graduated from the kanthari course. This has resulted in 60 plus social initiatives and projects.

The organization relies on donations to partially fund learning opportunities for students to become transformative social change agents.

Entrepreneurship has become a commonly abused term in the West.  It was refreshing to see real social entrepreneurship in action without the noise. For those interested in creating transformative social change, visit




A Fresh Look at Fundraising

generosity networkSo…how much did you ask? How did the visit go? This is a common question that fundraisers are asked after they meet prospects.

In a new book, “The generosity network: New transformational tools for successful fundraising,” authors Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker take a fresh look at fundraising. The authors show that “creating a sense of meaning and personal fulfillment is at the heart of great fundraising.”

They oppose fundraising as a transaction-based relationship where the fundraiser meets the donor solely to secure a financial gift. The book argues that “fundraising is a vehicle for transformation- personal, organizational, social, even global.”

Narrating her early experience as a fundraiser in New York, Jennifer says every ask that she made focusing solely on securing a financial gift yielded a negative response.  She soon realized that fundraising was not just about the numbers. Instead, it is a “shared commitment as two people sit down and have a deep conversation about their lives.” Giving is emotional, personal, makes people happy and is social.

The authors oppose fact-based appeals used commonly in fundraising. They argue that  fundraisers should focus on why people want “meaning in their lives” and  not dwell on data-driven case statements. “Another slide show won’t work and the most important aspect of fundraising is to create human connections.”

They are also against canned elevator pitches, a tactic  commonly used by non-profits. Instead, they encourage non-profits to focus on authentic storytelling. “Do not inundate your audiences with data, instead tell them stories.”

The book urges non-profits to stop selling ideas to people and encourages them to  give donors “opportunities to connect with causes.” It offers several nuggets, including one where the authors ask fundraisers to consider donors as their peers, irrespective of their social or financial standing. Treat them as peers and move from the “salesmanship model to enabling people to contribute to a dream.”

Authentic storytelling gets reinforced throughout the book and it has abundant tips on how to make the ask. At the heart of every ask is a “powerful story of the self, the power of us and now.” A good read.