Financial Planner Adds Value to Groups Aiding Africa by Leading Unique Collaboration

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SANTA CLARA, CA. – Jeff Chow is a walking, talking social graph for philanthropy. You can almost see the lines and bubbles emanate from him as he thinks out loud about the volunteers and nonprofit organizations he connects.

Any meeting with Chow is chock full of ideas and stories about numerous non-profits and people doing good in the world. If you share your story Chow will immediately rattle off a list of people he can put you in touch with who might be able to help you or at least share a similar story.

Out of this virtual social graph of Chow’s was born a group called Collaborate for Africa, a gathering of Bay Area organizations and individuals working to help people in the far-off continent.

It started one year ago, in November, 2009, with 25 people who were involved in philanthropic work for Africa, and now a year later there are 230 people on Chow’s e-mail list. Chow said about 20 to 30 people attend meetings on the second Thursday of every month at Santa Clara University.

“It’s exploded beyond any of my wildest expectations,” he said.

Chow’s day job is as a financial planner for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney; he specializes in helping nonprofits and their donors figure out investment strategies. Because of his unique position to know a lot of nonprofits and philanthropists, he is able to connect people with a similar focus.

It was out of a conversation with the leader of one local African-focused group that the idea was born. After realizing they knew lots of others working for Africa in the Bay Area, they asked themselves, “what if we put all these people in the same room?” After the first meeting, Chow knew they were on to something special.

Shannon Frediani plays the harp at a recent Collaborate for Africa meeting at Santa Clara University. Frediani is co-founder of Voices of Angels, which recently did work in Nigeria. Frediani shared a song she wrote about peace at the meeting.

“The enthusiasm and warmth was amazing,” Chow said of the gathering.

Collaborate for Africa not only helps groups work more efficiently by joining forces on projects, but it is also serving as a sort-of support group for volunteers who can sometimes feel isolated, Chow said. In addition, those who travel to Africa are often overwhelmed by what they experience there; being able to meet with others who share that experience is helpful.

At a recent meeting the group heard from two speakers who had been to Nigeria over the summer. One was a photographer who chronicled programs sponsored by a United States foundation. The second was the head of the Voices of Angels Foundation, a non-profit that provides something called an “eGranary” to schools. It is in essence a database of 15 million books and documents for educational institutions that have limited or no Internet access.

“We’re transformed by going to Africa,” Voices of Angels co-founder Shannon Frediani said after the meeting. But she said there is a “decompression aspect.” Collaborating for Africa helps group members know they are not alone, she said.

Frediani said she finds the monthly gatherings valuable, because group members learn from each other and “shorten the learning curve” by sharing experiences.

Another member, Bonita Banducci, of the Global Women’s Leadership Network, said Collaborate for Africa helps expand what each participating group can do on its own. One example includes groups traveling over to Africa being able to carry over supplies other groups here in the Bay Area.

“It’s about empowering each other,” Banducci said.

Chow said he tells members of the collaboration to “be selfish” when they come to meetings, and ask for what they need from the group.

“I’m very focused on trying to provide values to members,” he said.

At the same time that Chow was setting up Collaborate for Africa in the Silicon Valley, another group was forming in Santa Cruz, and the two work together, with some members visiting meetings of both groups. A group has also started in the Los Angeles area, and at the end of last month Chow and others met for the first time in San Francisco.

Despite all the time Chow spends helping others who regularly visit Africa, he has been to the continent only once a long time ago, he said. He gets regularly invited to go on trips, and said he suspects he will make the trip again one day.

This is not the first such collaborative group Chow has helped create. In January, 2009, Chow was instrumental in launching something called “Continuing the Conversation,” a gathering of local Peninsula business people that meets every Thursday morning in Palo Alto. The group focuses on how to help local businesses remain open in the face of competition from a growing number of chain stores and Internet sales.

Chow’s desire to help others succeed and excel, combined with his natural curiosity and brain that can’t seem to stop producing ideas and connections, drive both groups.

For Chow the financial consultant, in the end it’s all about providing value.

“I’m always asking myself, ‘can I provide value?’ If I can’t I’ll go find something else to do.”

To Collaborate for Africa members, the answer to that question is, “yes!”

For more information about Collaborate for Africa, or Continuing the Conversation, contact Chow at 510-891-5207.