Alissa Hauser: expanding compassion through The Pollination Project and her life

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.
– Mother Teresa, Albanian Roman Catholic nun, humanitarian, and Nobel Peace Prize winner

Alissa Houser, executive director of The Pollination Project, at Cafeina Organic Café in Albany, CA.

Alissa Hauser, executive director of The Pollination Project, at Cafeina Organic Café in Albany, CA.

You could say that both social justice and entrepreneurialism are in Alissa Hauser’s DNA. Raised in New Jersey, the executive director of The Pollination Project grew up with the spirit of volunteerism in her family. When she was young, she stuffed envelopes for local candidates for her politically active parents. After graduating and moving to San Francisco in 1993, she knew she wanted to work in nonprofits. When those organizations didn’t know how to run a business, however, she earned her degree in MBA for nonprofits at the University of San Francisco so she could bring business savvy into the nonprofit world. “My path has always been to be involved in more entrepreneurial, small-growing nonprofits than as part of a cog in a big wheel in a large nonprofit,” said Alissa, who now lives in El Cerrito, CA. “I really like being able to be close to the work we’re doing.”

Her first job out of graduate school was with Resourceful Women [now called Inspired Legacies], which educates and empowers socially responsible women with wealth to use their money as a tool for social change. Alissa then worked with activist and environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill, whom she helped to develop her body of environmental education through Circle of Life, the organization Hill founded. Circle of Life incubated Engage Network, which develops best practices for engaging people in an issue or cause and consults with large nonprofits on how to engage their members and supporters. One of the programs that Engage Network established was Off the Mat and Into the World, a network of people who do yoga and are engaged in social-change efforts. The project has raised millions of dollars to train leaders and support causes around the world.

Deciding that it was time for a change, Alissa left Engage Network in June 2012. Within days of her exit, Ariel Nessel, who had been a donor for some of the organizations she had run, reached out to her with his idea for The Pollination Project – to give a $1,000 grant a day  to social-change entrepreneurs. “He knew that I liked to start things and build up,” Alissa said. When asked if she could help him set up the foundation, she exclaimed, “I know when something is a ‘yes.’ It was a perfect fit for me.”

Alissa and her husband and son at the Family Block Party, hosted by the Alphabet Rockers, an Oakland, CA-based kids hip-hop band (courtesy of Alissa Houser).

Alissa and her husband and son at the Family Block Party, hosted by the Alphabet Rockers, an Oakland, CA-based kids hip-hop band (courtesy of Alissa Houser).

Spreading more kindness and compassion
Indeed, The Pollination Project’s mission to expand compassion to the planet, people, and animals is closely aligned to Alissa’s philosophy. “What I’m most committed to is creating more kindness and compassion in the world,” she said. “There are so many ways to do it; there are so many ways I have done it. But at the end of the day, I just want to be a person who inspires other people to be nice to one another, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.” In memory of the victims at Sandy Hook, Alissa and one of her friends conducted acts of kindness on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and documented them in an accompanying photo blog. “It was rewarding, but it’s more than just a day,” she countered. “It’s a way of life that I aspire to.”

One important lifestyle decision that Alissa and her husband “deliberately and intentionally” made was to eschew having biological kids and instead adopt through the Contra Costa County foster care system. She and her husband fostered their son, who was seven months at the time, and then adopted him. Alissa is a passionate advocate for the foster care system and the “amazing, heroic people who are in that system raising and caring for kids whom people don’t ever think about.” Through her experience with the system, she has discovered the “profound resiliency” in the children. “Kids want to be awesome; they just want people to give them a chance,” she enthused.

Barn Buddies pairs rescued ponies with foster and adopted kids (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Barn Buddies pairs rescued ponies with foster and adopted kids (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Alissa encourages everybody to consider the children in our communities who are already here and who can flourish under our guidance, love, and creativity, and become the President of the United States, doctors, and lawyers. Stigmatized, foster kids are treated as if they’re “broken and damaged goods, but they’re not,” Alissa adamantly says. “I’m really passionate about that.” In April, The Pollination Project funded a program founded by Rachel Pate and Kathy Lee, who have adopted children into their families. Barn Buddies, an equine-assisted therapy program, serves both foster and adopted children in metro Atlanta by pairing them with rescued ponies. The grant will help to build a barn for the ponies.

Finding your passion and purpose
Alissa firmly believes that everyone is given his or her life to do something with it. “Making a difference doesn’t have to be hard,” she contends. “Be clear about who you are, what you have to offer, and what you want to create in the world – and you can bring that to everything you do.” It’s really that simple, according to Alissa. “I do the work I do in the world, but at the end of the day, I could work at Starbuck’s and still have my life be about being kind and having people be nice and be happy,” she said. “It starts with inner intention.”

A protest against fracking (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

A protest against fracking (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Inner intention to one small step
It may start with inner intention for Alissa and indeed for many of the grantees, but The Pollination Project helps to bring those intentions out into the world. Alissa told me about Tawd Bell and his Divest to Protect project. Tawd is organizing a campaign to get companies and individuals to stop doing business with their local community bank in Columbus, Ohio, unless the bank reneges on its recent pro-fracking investment. “Sometimes, with the issues going on in the world, the big win is made up of a lot of little steps,” she said. “There are so many small, small steps, and the big win is so far off it’s probably not in our generation or our grandchildren’s generation. But you have to take those little steps.”

During the weekly application review, the team questioned whether boycotting one community bank with 200 accounts will make a difference. On the other hand, this bank’s position could be the first of many other local banks’ forays into investments that threaten the environment. “My position is that you have to do something and you have to win something,” Alissa said. And that’s The Pollination Project and Alissa’s philosophy – helping one change-maker, one vision, and one step every day.

Editor’s Note: If you have or someone you know has a project that would be a good candidate for a grant from The Pollination Project, you can access an application here.