Tagged: #philanthropy

Reshaping the Business of the Board: Grantpickers or Strategic Thinkers?

Boardroom b+w

If the job of the foundation board is to oversee strategy and determine the effectiveness of the organization in achieving its goals, isn’t it also the board’s job to pick the right grantees?

Probably not.

For large foundations that want to achieve big audacious goals, selecting individual grantees is probably not the best use of their wisdom. Therein lies one of the strange dichotomies of foundation board governance—a tension that has to be carefully managed by foundation CEOs.

When I started my career in philanthropy, all the foundation boards I knew of reviewed dockets—lists of staff-recommended grants for that quarter. (It’s interesting that philanthropy borrowed the word ‘docket’ from the legal profession, where it is ubiquitously used to refer to ‘cases to be tried,’ as well as calendaring.) Back in the day, those boards discussed each grant and gave a thumbs up or down based on whether the staff write-up was sufficiently compelling. The board’s main job was to approve grants.

But times are changing.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recently released report, Benchmarking Foundation Governance, offers a small peek into the changing nature of governance at foundations. Improving strategy, measurement, and effectiveness requires that foundation boards conduct their business differently. Most still adhere to a traditional calendar of four meetings per year (at an average of four hours per meeting, for a total of 16 hours of full board face time). But discussions about theories of change, adaptive evaluation, and strategic planning, which are at the center of thought leadership in the field, may be taking a greater share of time in foundation boardrooms.

Slightly more boards report a focus on foundation strategy (77 percent) than on approving grants (67 percent). Clearly boards do both, but I suspect the balance has evolved over time.

I was pleased to see that 59 percent of foundations delegate some grant decision-making to staff for grants below a certain dollar level. Even more positive is the finding that the median dollar max was an impressive $125,000. This approach to board work is both a wise time management tool as well as a demonstration of trust in staff expertise. Focusing board discussions on strategy and reserving grant discussions for those above a certain threshold prioritizes board time on the big questions and the big bets. Individual, large-scale grantpicking is a time sink that strategic boards can ill afford.

But boards also cannot get too far removed from the business of the enterprise. Since most foundations achieve their goals primarily through relationships with external organizations, how can boards be divorced from the task of selecting the right grantees?

The fact that 39 percent of large foundations have board discretionary funds from which individual board members can make grants with little or no staff involvement may be another tool that helps manage the tension. Board members may use those discretionary accounts like mini-venture funds to go toward smaller organizations they identify that may not yet pass rigorous due diligence. Or they may select grantees working on longer term issues in fields in which the board member has particularly deep content knowledge. Practically speaking, discretionary funds might also serve as a release valve, allowing board members to exercise their grantpicking impulse without having that activity take up too much of those precious 16 hours of face time.

In any case, more study of philanthropic governance would provide insights on how organizations manage these tensions between grantpicking and strategic thinking. How do foundations get the best out of their boards? Behind closed doors, interesting innovations in governance may well be occurring.

With the Nonprofit Community, Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Singapore, in the heart of South East Asia. The city-state we happily called home for more then 5 years. (phto credit Sarmu)

Singapore, in the heart of South East Asia. The city-state we happily called home for more then 5 years. (phto credit Sarmu)

I just returned to the U.S. after five years of living in Singapore and working with philanthropists and NGOs across Asia. As I resettle and reconnect, friends ask how I’ve changed since I left. While there are many things I learned in Asia, I am overwhelmed by how much I missed the “nonprofit-ness” of the U.S. I missed the way the third sector in the U.S. is understood to be a vibrant part of society. I missed the way nonprofits create public spaces for caring, inclusion, and recovery.

Nonprofits raise unpopular issues and express opinions that often lead to policy changes. From Black Lives Matter to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, World Wildlife Fund, Special Olympics, or Freedom to Marry, nonprofits create a collective space for conversations that need to happen. These nonprofits spark dialogue and build momentum for shifting public opinion and policy action.

Nonprofits open a window into beauty and poetry. Public art, theatre, and dance (to name just a few artistic forms) are critical expressions of our individual and collective identities. Diversity is increasing in every country and the process of how “they” become “us” is often described and facilitated through the arts. Small and large nonprofits alike give us a taste of the uniqueness of other cultures, even while we identify universal themes. Nonprofits hold space for new, outside, or “other” artists that might not get distribution in market-mediated venues.

Nonprofits can also establish ideals for leadership. The magnitude of public anger when nonprofit scandals break is in direct proportion to the public’s expectation that nonprofit leaders should hold themselves to even higher ethical standards than their counterparts in business or in government. While the sector may not always live up to those standards, it is an important role we in the third sector should embrace. This is not about taking vows of poverty or perfection, but is rather about maintaining critical inquiry of institutions on issues of governance, hierarchy, fairness, and equity.

Meanwhile, across Asia the role of nonprofits is being curtailed like never before. NGO voices are being silenced and regulated. And yet in my five years abroad, I regularly met people in China, India, and Southeast Asia who are dedicating themselves to starting and working in nonprofits. And not just to provide services, but to build community. These people — many of them newly-degreed young people — want to build meaning in their lives beyond wealth accumulation. Bucking roles assigned by family or society, they exhibit tremendous strength of spirit in their efforts to build robust nonprofit ecosystems.

My time abroad brought into stark relief the critical role our nonprofits play in weaving together the threads of our communities. Sure, we can get a lot better. But absence from this nonprofit community did indeed make my heart grow fonder.

Crystal Hayling is former CEO of the Blue Shield California Foundation and a member of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow her on Twitter at @CHayling.

Together or Alone: Can Philanthropy Effectively Tackle Systems?

‘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.

Winner Takes All in South East Asia? (Or will philanthropy rise along with wealth?)

 

Levers-For-Change-launchPerhaps it was the unseasonably warm weather in Davos, Switzerland that caused the shift of attention at the World Economic Forum to challenges faced by the global south and increasingly by developed nations: rising income and social inequality. OxFam released a report called Working for the Few that starkly illustrated the divide quite: the number of people whose wealth equals 50% of global assets could all squeeze into a double-decker bus. International Monetary Fund leaders expressed concern about rising inequality and its effect on political stability. Clearly, the rising economic tide has failed to raise all boats. Under the circumstances, “winner takes all” may be a better catchphrase.

Another truism to be revisited is the notion that increasing wealth automatically results in increased relative or absolute amounts of philanthropic and charitable giving. More to the point is the question of whether the political and economic arrangements contributing to growing gaps can be addressed through voluntary giving or whether they require more structural approaches.

Those arguing that giving can and should play a role in contributing to gradual change, or at least in shielding the most vulnerable groups, remind us that it cannot spring from charitable impulses alone. What is needed is philanthropy, conceived as a set of socially-conscious capabilities and practices that can be encouraged and shaped by a blend of legal, fiscal, socio-cultural and economic factors. In this context, the presence of local philanthropy in new markets and emerging economies is hailed as a possible, albeit limited, answer to growing disparities and new population needs.

The Lien Centre for Social Innovation, a think-tank based at Singapore Management University, partnered with the International Development and Research Centre to study the extent of philanthropy in Southeast Asia and its link to public policy in four Southeast Asian economies (Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand). Our report, entitled Levers for Change: Philanthropy in Select Southeast Asian Countries sets out to answer the question: how has philanthropy developed in the region and how is public policy and practice encouraging or inhibiting its growth?

Rising Wealth, Lagging Philanthropy

The Giving Pledge now has 122 signatories in 11 countries, but only two of them are from South East Asia, despite the fact that Asia’s number of ultra high net worth (HNW) individuals (those with $30M US or more) has caught up to levels in the US and Europe and is expected to eclipse those regions within the next five to ten years. The Giving Pledge is only one marker, and there is no way to capture giving that is anonymous or unrecorded, but the available evidence suggests giving, especially by the wealthy in Asia, lags behind that of the West. Of course cultural differences should be acknowledged: giving and philanthropy will and should look different in Asia than they do in the West.

Previous surveys of HNWs in the region suggest a greater interest in preserving wealth for future generations than developing strategies for giving it away. Those studies have concluded donors are motivated to give primarily in order to pass values from one generation to the next; they fund education and religion far more than other issues, are family- and clan-oriented, prefer giving to services over causes, and like to give quietly.

So what does all this mean for those interested in increasing philanthropy to help it address social and economic inequity? The Lien Centre’s report reveals consistent evidence that thoughtful public policy can increase philanthropic giving, but it also uncovered many gaps and missed opportunities in policy and practice that hinder philanthropic growth, particularly philanthropy focused on addressing thorny social problems.

Innovations in Giving

The study found a number of approaches and innovations in giving practices–some encouraged by policies, but more frequently by civil society initiatives—that can serve as replicable models for the region and beyond:

  • Singapore clearly emerged as a leader in driving increased giving through policies that encourage domestic contributions to voluntary organizations. Donors can deduct two and a half times the value of their donations to approved NGOs in their tax filings, resulting in Singapore’s charitable contributions consistently increasing.
  • In Indonesia, a growing movement of nonprofit organizations collects and distributes zakat (alms) to support community development for poverty alleviation, a relatively new approach since these are funds had primarily been given to temples for relief of the needy. Given that Islam requires zakat of all able-bodied Muslims, it potentially constitutes a vast sum of money in this, the largest Muslim nation in the world.
  • In the Philippines, networks of NGOs lobbied for the creation of The Foundation for the Philippine Environment, set up in 1992 through a unique debt swap that required government support and legal permission.
  • The Thai Health Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropic institution, established under the Health Promotion Act of 2001, is funded by a 2% excise tax on alcohol and tobacco products sold. The fund disburses about $100M US each year.
  • Disaster relief has grown significantly in all four countries and is raising the profile of community-wide giving rather than just giving by the extremely wealthy.
  • Nascent efforts to start community foundations shows promise as a way of focusing resources on community needs while also providing donor education.

Challenges for Philanthropy

Lack of Data. A number of significant challenges remain, however. Limited data on philanthropy and nonprofits inhibits growth in all four countries. This makes it difficult to accurately capture the state of giving, while resistance to data collection inhibits public faith in the sector as well as entrenching inefficiencies in funds disbursement and donor isolation.

Awareness of the need for philanthropic efforts is limited. Focus on the high average income has, until very recently, overshadowed discussions of poverty pockets in Singapore. Similarly for the region, the focus on rapid economic growth limits attention for wealth disparities and persistent poverty. Moreover, there is a perception among many HNW individuals that socio-economic issues are the responsibility of governments and international aid bodies.

Limitations of Tax Policies. Individual income tax policy (which in the US is considered a key driver of charitable giving) is underutilized in the region, with the exception of Singapore, largely because of the limited potential of individual taxes as a lever for change in emerging economies. In these countries, a small portion of the population pays income taxes and the effective tax rate is relatively low. Tax collectors face highly mobile, extremely savvy HNW individuals who will unlikely be swayed by modest deductions on taxes they may in any case be able to avoid.

Nor does this tend to be a high priority for NGO activists. Much of the wealth in the region rests with individuals and families in privately held conglomerates with close government connections. Transparency in corporate and inheritance tax policy is a critical work in progress. NGO activists, who in the West fight for the charitable deduction, may understandably choose to focus on government accountability and transparency rather than tax breaks for the wealthy.

While the possibilities of individual income tax may be limited, corporate or industry taxes may prove to be an area of opportunity for spurring institutional philanthropy. In 2007, Indonesia passed Law No 40 on limited Liability Companies requiring extractive industries to contribute 2% of profits to community benefit. Without transparency and clear reporting, it is currently impossible to measure the impact of this law, but many hope such funds could eventually be channeled into local grantmaking.

Skepticism about corporate giving. Corporate giving is increasingly viewed with skepticism by NGOs because more corporations are now fundraising for company-run programmes. In Indonesia, NGOs have developed a set of recommended ethics for media fundraising as they have watched newspapers raise millions for disaster relief, with little accountability for how funds were distributed.

Distrust of NGO’s. The fact that regulation of NGOs is either nonexistent or unenforcement creates confusion in the field and undermines public faith and support in nonprofit and philanthropic institutions. In the Philippines, a voluntary ‘accreditation’ for NGOs is being tried as a way to break through donor distrust for the sector.

The symbiotic, yet sometimes uneasy, relationship between nonprofits and donors was highlighted as a challenge in all four countries. NGOs would prefer donors to offer longer-term support to build institutional capacity, while many donors cite lack of accountability as a reason many create their own projects rather than working with NGOs. Robust networks of donors and NGOs, as evidenced in the Philippines and increasingly in Singapore, can begin to help overcome these challenges through knowledge sharing of best practice.

Some strategies to be considered. To help offset these obstacles, the study suggested a number of approaches worth exploring:

  • Singapore’s tax benefits for charitable giving currently do not apply to NGOs working outside of Singapore. As an economic and policy leader in the region, expansion of those policies could significantly spur giving especially since so much of the region’s wealth sits in Singapore’s private banks.
  • All four countries would benefit from concerted donor education to advance strategic philanthropy and move beyond chequebook charity. A promising sign is the nascent development of community foundations and giving circles where donors, large and small, can pool financial resources and match funds with expertise on community needs to support worthy NGOs.
  • Regional collaboration could help each country align interests in maximizing revenues while also encouraging philanthropy. Could ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) consider philanthropic policy as part of its mandate?
  • Social media may be a means of increasing broad-based community fundraising. Mobile technology has a strong presence in all of the countries studied and has the potential to be a platform for change.

Ultimately, philanthropy’s singular value is its ability to be seed capital and patient capital for civil society. Governments and markets cannot build equitable societies without a vibrant civil society. And civil society needs strategic, thoughtful, educated and engaged donors as partners. The enabling environment for strategic philanthropy can be improved through policies that encourage innovation in civil society, increase non-profit and philanthropic accountability, improve data collection, and celebrate risk-taking leaders. Maybe this will be a topic for next year’s Davos.

               This piece, written in collaboration with Rosalia Sciortino and Prapti Upadhay, originally appeared in March 2014 issue of Alliance magazine.

Impact Investing: Philanthropy’s New Frontier?

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.

It’s Not (Just) About the Money

Elegant and well-heeled would be the best way to describe them. I smiled at these two women of indeterminate age who I had just met at the launch of the UBS-INSEAD Study on Family Philanthropy in Asia. As I moved to introduce them to one another, they both laughed and said, “We’ve known each other since…” putting the flat of their hands forward at small-child-height.

“ We were neighbors,” the petite Chinese woman said.

“Our apartment was here, and their apartment was there,” said the smiling Indian woman, pointing her finger in the upward diagonal.

“Didn’t you play marbles?” One asked the other with a mischievous grin.

“Oh yes, all the time. And with the boys!”

“And every day your mom—rest her soul.  She was a real force of nature. She would go to the market over there on…”

“And my father, he’s not well now, but we take care of him at home…”

“Yes, we knew each other.”

“ But it’s not like that anymore.”

“ No nothing is like that anymore.”

There was silence as I imagined them thinking about all the changes—education, jobs, marriage, kids, and clearly wealth—that had happened since those long-ago days. For a brief moment I could almost see the bustling apartments these women described, in the brand-new nation Singapore was 30 or so years ago. Where families knew one another, children played in empty lots, and what bound everyone together was that they were all strivers.

We drifted apart as the 150+ person crowd wandered into the auditorium to hear the current state of family philanthropy as described by the recently completed study. Despite the fact that we are all living in the midst of Asia’s economic engine, the stats were still mind-boggling.

  •  China now has over 1 million US dollar millionaires.
  •  In recent years, Indian households have witnessed the highest absolute gains in wealth in the world.
  • By the end of 2009 there were some 3 million Asian Pacific high net worth individuals, equaling the number in Europe for the first time, and their wealth totaled US $9.7 trillion.

But the rising tide has not raised all boats.

  • In sheer numbers the region is still the largest locus of poverty and deprivation in the world. In 2005 there were over 660 million people in India and China alone who lived on less than US $1.25 per day.
  •  In India, the wealthiest 5% of the population control 40% of the country’s wealth.

All of these statistics from the report were only the prelude to the substance of the discussion.  Through 200 quantitative surveys and over 100 in-depth interviews, the report’s author Mahboob Mahmood, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise captured themes on motivations for giving, priorities, and philanthropic approaches.

The image that emerges is a charitable sector led by closely held family businesses with a strong entrepreneurial ethos, complex intergenerational relationships, delicate succession and legacy challenges, and a deep awareness (particularly on the part of the patriarchs and older generations) of the power of education to change the course of lives in a single generation. Philanthropy is a useful mechanism for reinforcing shared values with the goal of supporting family cohesion and harmony.

Education is by far the largest area of investment, with poverty alleviation and health distant seconds and thirds. Arts/culture (4%), the environment (4%) and civil rights (1%) were small also-rans.

Among the challenges cited was lack of experienced staff, the perception (and sometimes reality) of a limited number of high-impact NGO partners, and difficulty in finding philanthropic co-investors who are aligned in mission.

The incredibly generous families who participated in the study are to be lauded for their leadership. They are impressive fonts of giving but as yet there exist few networks of strategic philanthropy that can achieve what the authors called, “sustained transformational impact in Asia.”

I was struck by the words of panelist Laurence Lien, CEO of Singapore’s National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and a member of one of Singapore’s most philanthropic families when he said, “The most important use of philanthropy is social innovation and social change. Charity is important, but there is much more to do.”

His comments took me back to the conversation I’d had earlier with those two elegant, well-heeled ladies. Money provides privilege to those who possess it but it also changes everything. It can create fractures in families, as well as in societies. It can disconnect people from their broader community. And the relentless drive for economic growth can take a deep toll on cultural traditions as well as our physical environment.

The challenge ahead for philanthropists in Asia, indeed philanthropists everywhere, is to engage with communities in developing solutions.  Charity is usually top-down, highly transactional and rarely transformative. It is important, but not enough. Transformational impact can be achieved by moving beyond charity with strategic analysis, community engagement, and emphasis on our shared vision and common destiny. Networks and collaboration are required. Civil society can play an essential role in reweaving the fabric of society. But it requires more than charity. It requires vision more than just money.

The title of this post was at least partially inspired by the Jesse J. song my kids adore which is on a regular loop in our house…

We Always Give What We Have, Not What People Need

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.