‘Kids are the canaries in the coalmine. Where kids are doing well, communities are doing well. Where kids are not doing well, communities are not doing well,’ came the challenge from an audience member.
‘True, but many foundations decide, for example, that education is THE answer to community improvement. That’s like saying, “If only the canaries were smarter …”’ responded John A Powell, director of the Haas Institute, in a breakout session on inequality at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s 2015 conference in San Francisco on 19–21 May. The purpose of the canary, he stressed, is to tell us what’s wrong with the environment, with the system that surrounds us.
This exchange captured a theme that ran throughout CEP’s conference—the importance of understanding systems, not just symptoms, in order to drive philanthropic impact and effectiveness.
Van Jones, who received a standing ovation for his remarks, challenged the more than 300 foundation leaders to consider systemic bias and not just individual outcomes. He gave as example working to close prisons rather than just treating individual offenders. The latter is certainly important, but the former is an upstream, system change that has the potential to shift the trajectory of the problem, not just outcomes for x number of individuals.
Jones, a CNN correspondent and non-profit leader who worked in the Obama White House, encouraged foundations to step outside of their comfort zone to build allies for change, citing his current prison reform initiative in partnership with Newt Gingrich. ‘Turns out you can work with people you disagree with, on the issues you agree on.’
Further encouragement to push past business as usual was delivered by Henry Timms, founder of #GivingTuesday and exec director of 92nd Street Y, one of the largest social service non-profits in NYC.
Henry put the crowd through exercises to uncover their understanding of what he and Jeremy Heimans in their much-discussed Harvard Business Review article coined ‘new power’ and the way it will transform how people engage in good works.
The power to do good will no longer be concentrated in the hands of large incumbent organizations filled with professionals, but will likely be more distributed through technology-enabled networks where messages are not centrally controlled and brands will be co-created by aligned publics.
Echoing themes of partnership and alliances, Barbara Kellerman of the Harvard Kennedy School challenged our current fixation on what she called ‘the $50 billion leadership industry’.
Why, she asked, have we created a culture where following is seen as less than and inferior?
A terrific challenge for our times as we see foundations with giant communications budgets and branding strategies that trumpet their leadership and distinctiveness from others.
Maybe she’s on to something.
This theme of followership and partnership also appeared in breakout sessions highlighting foundation collaboration, co-creation and examples of shared impact.
Overall, the conference seemed to succeed in challenging current thinking while also providing tools and ideas for improving foundation effectiveness. New research by CEP showed the disconnect between foundation talk about social investing vs the actual work being done in this area.
Perhaps most fascinating was the success of a nine-person panel—which seemed like a terrible idea but actually worked because it showed the breadth of approaches foundations are taking to achieve their work.
Clara Miller from Heron pushed foundations to stop being ‘hedge funds with a tiny philanthropy office on the side’ and put the other 95 per cent of assets to work.
And Sylvia Yee shared the Haas Foundation’s experience of funding marriage equality from the early days of the movement to current successes—describing the donor commitment necessary to see through the many failures and setbacks along the way.
Do conferences change foundation practice? Perhaps yes. Certainly so if participants left with Lynn Perry Wooten’s opening remarks in mind, ‘A good leader’s role is not just to serve, but to enable others to act.’ CEP’s conference provided tools, if foundations want to take action.
The Philanthropy in Asia 2014 conference launched on 20 October in the chambers of Singapore’s Old Parliament Building, the wood-panelled halls where the city-state was founded. Prime Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s worn leather seat bears his name etched in a bronze plaque on the headrest.
The historic site was purposely selected by Patsian Low, conference organizer at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, in order to evoke the economic progress that supports increasing levels of philanthropy – and the uneven distribution of wealth that calls for it.
Current affairs played a role in the conference proceedings. Attendance at the swearing-in ceremony of Indonesia’s newly elected President Joko Widodo prevented Mr Tahir of the Tahir Foundation (and recent Giving Pledge signatory) from delivering the keynote, and teatime hallway discussions included many questions to Hong Kong participants about the ongoing protests. Yet the focus remained on the future.
The keynote was ably delivered by Audette Exel of Australia’s ISIS Foundation who described the lessons learned from her long-term philanthropic work with children in remote villages in Uganda and Nepal. The ISIS Foundation (which will soon undergo a name change) is funded entirely by ISIS Asia Pacific, her niche financial services corporation where all profits go towards funding the non-profit foundation. ‘I’m not a successful businessperson now turning to doing good, I am a social activist who figured I needed to learn about business.’ She talked about the importance of ‘purpose’ for all employees, not just those in the social sector, and the fact that more financial services firms need to take up social engagement.
Prapti Upadhyay and I shared highlights from the Lien Centre for Social Innovation’s report Levers for Change: Philanthropy in Select Southeast Asian Countries which outlined key public policies that can encourage strategic philanthropy in the region. These include creating clearly defined charitable legal structures, improving tax policy, encouraging more community philanthropy, building philanthropy advisory services, mandating greater transparency and data collection.
Following that, a plenary panel entitled ‘Windows to the Future: A Networked Philanthropy’ featured Naina Subberwal Batra, director of Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, moderating a discussion with representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lien Centre for Social Innovation. Parminder Singh from Twitter described the power of Twitter as a platform for social change and fundraising, citing the spontaneous response to the Jammu and Kashmir floods that resulted in the creation of #JKfloodrelief (and subsequently JKfloodrelief.org). This entirely volunteer-run response, in the first week following the floods, used Twitter to coordinate the delivery of 15 tons of food and 4 tons of life-saving medicine and opened a critical communication platform for emergency relief coordination. Most of the organizers have still never met in person, but they nonetheless created a powerful volunteer team.
In a breakout session on collaboration, Veronica Colondam of the YCAB Foundation in Indonesia described the ways in which lack of a legal structure to incorporate social enterprises is limiting their ability to expand their services to at-risk youth. In the same session, Rob John of the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy at NUS Business School shared his research on the rise of giving circles in Asia as a means of philanthropy, donor education and community building.
As participants boarded buses to diverse themed dinners, discussions were lively and debates engaging. The gathering provided a great setting for plotting the future course of philanthropy in the region.
This post was also published in Alliance Magazine’s online edition.
Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, recently visited Singapore and hosted a series of talks and meetings to stimulate and support impact investing in Asia.
Dr Rodin joined a heavy-hitting panel that included Asian Development Bank, International Finance Corporation, Rangsutra (a social enterprise), Credit Asia Capital, and Impact Investment Exchange Asia (IIX). They addressed a filled-to-capacity crowd at INSEAD business school where 100+ students, investors, philanthropists, bankers and academics listened to their call to action.
The speakers outlined what they perceive to be the many benefits of impact investing: social as well as financial returns, side-stepping inefficient or corrupt governments, unleashing entrepreneurism, and building enterprises that can be sustained without philanthropic support.
The idea that markets can be harnessed to solve social problems is not a new one, but I have observed that the concept holds particular resonance among the socially-minded wealthy here in Singapore and some parts of South & South East Asia. My conversations with current and interested impact investors and fund managers suggest some potential reasons why this might be so:
1) The power of the market is indisputable and omnipresent. Year over year double-digit growth throughout Asia has decreased the percentage of the population living in poverty (though absolute numbers remain frighteningly high) and the creation of a middle class has been achieved and appears sustainable in some countries.
2) Fewer wealthy individuals have ‘cashed out’ of the enterprises that made their money. Wealth is more likely to come from family businesses and ideally successive generations continue to run those businesses. The money feels more like ‘working capital’ than an endowment.
3) Family offices are built to manage investments. Impact investing fits better within that organizational ethos. Language matters in establishing comfort and familiarity. ‘Structuring deals’ is more compatible with those in the family office than ‘making grants.’
4) Many third generation, high net worth individuals in their 30s and 40s have a finance or investing background. The generation of ‘new philanthropists’ here in Asia are ex-bankers, MBAs, Ivy/Oxford-educated and they feel called to use that unique skill-set to make their social impact.
Of course, among the converted sat plenty of skeptics. Many traditional investors questioned the entire category of impact investing—asserting that ‘social’ is another term describing higher risk and that true investors would never pay a higher price than necessary for an investment: everything else is philanthropy.
Indeed, the feeling of philanthropy was very much in the air, despite the finance lingo. While some people pitch impact investing with assurances that investors can put money here even if they don’t care about social returns, that proposition rings hollow. The people I’ve met who are intrigued by impact investing care a lot. They are bringing their hearts and their minds to the proposition. And that impulse is very much grounded in philanthropy—from the Greek origin philanthropos: love of mankind. So while some impact investors dismiss the term philanthropy, still others believe they are redefining or adding new dimensions to it.
Impact investing—here or anywhere—is not for the faint of heart. Impact investing that achieves broad scale, is a theory that has yet to be fully proved. But it posits an exciting possibility. As such, it requires risk-taking, strategy, patience, determination, humility, and passion. Passion to make a difference and chart new territory. This is not the settled homelands of philanthropy, this may be its new frontier.
In the coming months I’ll be interviewing key philanthropists and impact investors in the region to hear, in their own words, some of their successes, challenges, and motivations. I hope you’ll join the conversation.
This piece is cross-posted on the @Alliance Magazine website which can be found here.
This post was originally published as a guest blog on the Good Intentions web site.
The aid community has been having a healthy debate about whether gifts-in-kind (GIK) othertimes called SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) donations are a good or bad thing. The most recent spark to the flame occurred in February 2011 when t-shirts declaring the Pittsburgh Steelers the 2010 Super Bowl Champs were donated by the NFL to World Vision International for distribution in Zambia, Romania, Nicaragua, and Romania. (follow @GoodIntents or @texasinafrica on Twitter, for the low-down)
Critics argue that these kinds of giveaways harm poor communities more than they help because they flood the markets with free goods which underprice clothing and thereby put local tailors, dressmakers or small clothing companies out of business.
But are all clothing donation programs created equal?
As an advisor to Ashoka, I was invited to meet Anshu Gupta at a coffee shop here in Singapore to learn more about this fellow’s work. He’s polite and a bit reserved until he starts talking about Goonj, the organization he founded in 1999. Goonj, which serves 21 states in India, receives donated clothing, largely from upper and middle class Indians, and then using hundreds of trained local volunteers, cleans and distributes that clothing to Indians too poor to afford even basic clothing.
But the process is far from simple. Middle class women in Mumbai donate jeans. Rural women in Tamilnadu don’t wear jeans. They wear saris. And they might not wear saris made of the same cloth that women from Delhi might donate. So Goonj volunteers have a highly developed cataloging system that allows them to identify, separate and group clothing according to where the recipients can actually use it. In addition, recipients engage in neighborhood-building work in exchange for clothing. Goonj’s community organizers have developed a variety of means of helping communities help themselves using this recycled resource as an incentive, commodity, and exchange.
Goonj sees its mission as giving people clothing to help them move toward self-esteem, skills building and self-sufficiency. So the right clothing exchanged for work or expertise in a respectful way, is critical to the model.
So I’m so impressed with Goonj and I’m asking myself how is this charitable clothing donation different than the process employed by some large aid organizations? Seems to me there are a few key points of what makes Goonj effective:
1) Locally driven.
2) Culturally respectful.
3) Organized around the needs of the recipients, not the needs of the donors.
4) Fueled by creative re-use. Their newest initiative is using clean, recycled cloth scraps to make locally produced sanitary pads for poor women. A real public health and sustainability breakthrough.
5) And it recognizes that poor communities are looking to build markets of exchange and value, not destroy them. Those who extend the life of resource are performing an important function in the community’s ecosystem, they are not passive recipients.
When I met him, Anshu was asking for assistance in further developing his business model, training other NGOs to replicate the Goonj program, and seeking experienced volunteers to document and write case studies about their work. He was actively seeking support and critique. I was stopped in my tracks by World Vision’s statement that it has never evaluated their gifts-in-kind programs because “they are gifts, not programs.” Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement that it’s still blowing my mind.
My point here is not to denigrate or bestow sainthood on any organization. World Vision is full of smart and dedicated people, so I have no doubt the organization will change and grow, as will Goonj.
But this discussion encourages us all to respond energetically to our charitable impulses, while also being open to learning when those impulses might need refining in order to be responsive to community needs. There is no shame in having an idea or program that needs improvement. The shame is in being too close-minded to make the improvements.
As we were parting Anshu summed it up perfectly when he said, the problem with most programs is that “we always give what we have, not what people need.”
Please share your ideas for how we might be able to change that.