The Indian-American son of two physicians, M. Night Shyamalan grew up outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and paved a creative path, first attending NYU Tisch School of the Arts before making it big in Hollywood. The director-writer-producer is behind hugely successful suspense and thriller films like The Sixth Sense (I'll never forget the twist), Unbreakable, and Signs. Through these efforts, Shyamalan has amassed quite a bit of wealth, and is worth an estimated $50 million.
In 2001, when Shyamalan was barely into his thirties, he and his wife Bhavna established the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation (MNSF) and became as precocious in philanthropy as he was in film directing. We've written before about this couple's work in the ed reform space in Philadelphia. After filming on location in Philly, Shyamalan was struck by what he describes as “prisons in the form of schools." The film director plunged into a five-year research journey to figure out how to help these schools and has maintained this focus along with Bhavna through MNSF.
However, solving the local education puzzle is only one piece of this couple's philanthropy. Besides its domestic education initiative, MNSF also runs an international education initiative, as well as several others, all of which focus on global issues. The foundation states that its mission is to "support the grassroots efforts of emerging leaders as they work to remove the barriers and eliminate inequities created by poverty."
To help the world's poor, MNSF engages in a variety of partnerships through its initiatives in Food and Nutrition, Human Trafficking and Slavery, Livelihood and Job Skills, and Water. MNSF is involved in multi-year partnerships with outfits in India, Tanzania, Guatemala, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Kenya and Ghana. A sampling of partners includes Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya; Tanzanian Children's Fund; The Samburu Project, a nonprofit focused on drilling wells in Kenyal; Nuevas Esperanzas, which works for the Nicaraguan poor; and Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to increase access to education in post-conflict South Sudan.
It's important to note that MNSF is especially interested in working with "leaders." Former MNSF Executive Director Jennifer Walters-Michalec explained this to Global Philadelphia: "What we found out is that our most successful work always involved an amazing leader, and while there are a lot of organizations, it always takes that leadership to really impact the work they do.” One leader, James Kofi Annan, who was sold into slavery as a child, founded Challenging Heights last decade to help other children who face similar dire circumstances.
What got the Shyamalans interested in this space to begin with?
Well, the couple were both born in India. When MNSF was founded, it offered financial support to American families that adopted orphans from India. While Shyamalan was raised in suburban Philadelphia, he notes that his dad often spoke about the opportunities afforded to them in the United States. Also born in India, Bhavna was raised in Hong Kong. She attended NYU and earned a Ph.D. in clinical development psychology from Bryn Mawr College. Bhavna spent time working with young victims of sexual abuse. These days, she travels around the world to vet nonprofits for MNSF.
The Shyamalans' foundation spreads its money thinly, supporting a handful of organizations with multi-year funding. This may make it tough for new organizations to find a way in. It's worth noting that MNSF's Human Trafficking initiative states that it is looking for organizations with which to partner.
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