Harvard couple to launch pioneering nonprofit in West Africa


By Chrissie Long

Both Mike and Marisa Conway are convinced that end-of-life satisfaction won’t come from a traditional career in a Washington, D.C. office building.  A 9-to-5 job may be for some people. But they want something more tangible.

In between teaching typing skills to adults in Kawes, Mali and running nutrition campaigns in Mandiana, Guinea; they found what they were looking for as Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa. It was here, in the dusty African plains, that few hours teaching a child to read could improve the quality of life for an entire village and that one or two computers could prevent unnecessary loss of life.

They decided this was where they could make a difference and where they would build their life’s work.

“I want to be connected to the work I am doing,” said Marissa, a Florida native, who graduated from the Harvard School of Education in 2012. “It’s important for us to be closely linked to the decisions and outcomes so that we know we are making a difference.”

Mike, a second year MPP who co-chairs the African Caucus, added, “It seems that development work requires more than coming up with a good project or a good program. What it seems to require is this idea that you will put yourself in the situation.

“We saw how much money was being spent by international agencies and we saw that a lot of projects weren’t achieving what they are supposed to,” he said. “Our sense was that these organizations lacked a feel for what was happening on the ground.”

After spending the last two years at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard School of Education, they are preparing to go back to West Africa to start making real change.

To do so, they need to raise $200,000 in seed money for a groundbreaking program that will reverse disturbing trends in illiteracy. Their model, based on hours of refinement in rigorous Harvard graduate programs, will use existing resources to start early childhood education programs. Their end goal is to see a dramatic reduction in the statistic that 65 million adults in West Africa cannot read or write.

“Illiteracy seems to feed so many other symptoms of poverty,” Mike said. “If we target illiteracy, we’ll see community members become agents for change and motivated participants in new economies.”

With the guidance of HKS faculty members and colleagues, they’ve submitted the paperwork to become an official nonprofit and are eagerly awaiting a response.

In the meantime, they are hosting a kick-off celebration on Nov. 29 with live music from a Malian band. With auction items for weekends away, easy-to-win gift certificates at local restaurants and a 20 percent cut of all beer sold, they are hoping for support from the HKS community.

Nick Berger, an MPP2 and co-founder of a nonprofit consultancy organization Sweat2Solutions, has been working with Mike and Marissa to design the concept of the nonprofit, ‘A Place in the Sun Foundation’.

“Mike and Marisa have never wavered in their commitment to return to Mali and to dedicate their careers to improving the state of education that exists there today,” he said.

“In all the late nights we spent writing business plans last semester, the long hours we spent hammering out the service delivery model on Skype over the summer, and the unglamorous work we do reaching out to potential donors today, they’ve never lost sight of what they care about and what they are working towards.”

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Drink for the Children

Tommy Doyles

Thursday, Nov. 29

6 p.m. – 10 p.m.

To pre-purchase raffle tickets or to volunteer, e-mail Mike Conway at Mike_Conway@hks13.harvard.edu. For more information, visit place-in-the-sun.org.

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