At most awards dinners, you learn some interesting ideas and hear some success stories, and it all makes a nice, mild impression. But last week I attended an awards dinner downtown that made me slap my forehead.

The dinner gave awards to non-profit organizations that distinguish themselves through innovation. The winner was KickStart International, which has devised a business model that's ingeniously simple and wonderfully effective. If more non-profits, and even businesses, followed its lead, I dare say poverty throughout the world could be dramatically and permanently reduced.

KickStart operates in Kenya and other areas of impoverished sub-Saharan Africa. It comes up with simple, sturdy, hand-powered tools designed to immediately transform destitute people into money-making entrepreneurs.

One of its tools is a simple hand press that makes building blocks out of dirt mixed with cement. A smaller hand press squeezes sunflower seeds and the like to create cooking oil. But its big-impact product is a foot-powered water pump. It looks like a low-tech elliptical machine. One operator stands on it and steps rhythmically; the motion powers a little pump that sucks water out of a well or pond or river. A second operator uses a hose to spray water on up to two acres.

Irrigated land, of course, produces higher-value crops and more abundant yields. It lets a new farmer get a second crop during the dry season. As a result, the pump owner's annual earnings may go from something like $500 to $1,500 enough to vault him into what constitutes the middle class in Kenya.

KickStart says that numerous small entrepreneurs can afford for the first time to send their children to school and even hire employees. It claims that since 1991, its products have spawned more than 70,000 little businesses and more than 330,000 people have been lifted out of poverty.

The genius didn't stop at coming up with simple, durable tools that are useful in Africa. KickStart also made the decision, fairly unusual for a non-profit, to charge for its wares. Its pump costs about $95 a good deal of money for impoverished villagers. But we humans tend to value what we pay for; when we have skin in the game, we play harder. Also, because the tools are purchased, it allows manufacturers, distributors and retailers of the products to make a profit, thereby creating a little chain of other sustainable businesses.

Many non-profits in Africa see a need and strive to fix it. Good intentions are great, of course, but the problem is that when the non-profit leaves when the doctors or teachers or food aid workers return home the villagers may be left with little and may revert back. On the other hand, if the teachers or food aid workers stay, it may merely make the villagers dependents. KickStart's business model, by contrast, empowers the people. It creates a business class. In fact, if you call up KickStart's Web site, this astoundingly simple but powerful statement is front and center: "A poor person's top need is a way to make money."

Sadly, many non-profits are not focused on helping the poor help themselves.

"The vast majority of programs out there are not making ... sustainable impacts," said KickStart co-founder Martin Fisher last week after receiving his award at the Los Angeles Music Center.

KickStart won the Drucker Institute's Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation. It is appropriate, since Peter Drucker believed in innovation and results. In fact, the program quoted Drucker as saying, "All non-profit organizations must be governed by performance, not merely good intentions."

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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