Philanthropy is changing. Not in any radical or revolutionary way, but slowly, oil-tanker style. It is moving at a slow but steady pace, creating new structural trends, a new appreciation of learning through failure and a healthy opening up to the idea of collaboration. Some might call it a paradigm shift.
Previously, foundations generally implemented time-bound, short-term projects, limited to a 12, 18 or 24 month timeframe, but today’s philanthropists are thinking much more systemically. The lexicon is changing as talk of long-term social investment programmes and inter-generational change gains traction. The difficulty of creating sustainable social value through short-term interventions is being recognised.
Where once foundations took a ‘spray and pray’ or ‘scatter-gun’ approach disbursing multiple short-term grants to multiple third parties in multiple different sectors, today they increasingly focus. Historically, when the remit of foundations grew, too often it diluted their impact. Today, foundations are much more targeted and in some cases focusing on just a single issue with a view to eradicating it permanently, rather than simply mitigating it temporarily.
Our model at Emirates Foundation is a case in point. From working with multiple different categories of beneficiaries and multiple themes with a large grant making portfolio, we now work on only one area – youth development. Moreover, rather than issue hundreds of grants each year to multiple third parties, we now run and manage our own programmes in-house.
While grant making is still the norm, new financial instruments and new operational models are emerging. Social impact bonds are being watched closely by governments, social investors and even conventional ones. These performance-based investments pay out when successful social outcomes result in public sector savings. They are driving a new way of thinking about how social finance should be structured.
With our new operational Venture Philanthropy model, where we focus on only one area, we are already seeing a difference in terms of measurable outputs – over 40,000 youth in the UAE have been impacted by our programmes.
While often rightly reiterating the criticality of grants, foundations are now also looking at loan guarantees, debt and equity. As the world’s ‘wicked problems’ persist in their intractability, new financial instruments are needed to help scale up solutions. Community-specific innovation is not enough. The world needs large-scale initiatives to address large-scale problems. Extreme poverty still affects over one billion people on the planet despite over ten years of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Measurement is also coming to the fore. In the past, foundations tended to track inputs – the number of grants processed, the number of projects completed and the total spend. Today, they increasingly look at outputs and outcomes. What was the real impact of their efforts and did it last? Impact investors go further, demanding a tangible social (and often financial) return on their investments, forcing philanthropists to focus on real value creation rather than simply delivery and execution.
New entrepreneurial ways of thinking are giving rise to new mechanisms of delivery with social enterprises at the fore. This hybrid model combines business principles such as efficiency, accountability and value creation with the traditional focus of social organisations. Social enterprise is also capturing the imagination of younger philanthropists disillusioned with the pure profit mantra of big business but convinced that philanthropy should be more results-driven and more transparent.
Where once money was a key component, philanthropists now look to combine financial resources with technical ones. Many foundations are now very ‘hands-on’ in terms of delivery and much less comfortable with a transactional ‘cheque-writing’ model. Traditional dependence on single donors is being replaced by a drive for financial viability as a critical component of achieving long-term sustainable results.
Where previously foundations may have kept their internal learning a closely guarded secret, today they are more inclined to share knowledge and insights. Logical frameworks and ongoing comprehensive evaluation are now seen as critical tools of improving internal learning and performance management. Foundations once averse to sharing ‘failure’ are now embracing it as a means of building capacity and credibility among investors, as a sign of track record and experience.
These trends have not yet been institutionalised across the sector but are more and more prevalent in its literature, networks and events. Emirates Foundation’s annual philanthropy summit was dedicated entirely to this topic last year, themed ‘Philanthropy in Transition’. The OECD-hosted foundation network, NetFWD recently published a report reiterating these points. Entitled Venture Philanthropy In Development: Dynamics, Challenges And Lessons In The Search For Greater Impact,the report documents the transition of four global foundations (Rockefeller, Shell, Lundin and Emirates) from traditional philanthropy to Venture Philanthropy (also known as Strategic, Catalytic, or Enterprise-based Philanthropy). All four changed their business model with a view to deploying philanthropic capital more efficiently and creating more measureable social value.
Not all are convinced of the new direction. Some traditionalists still challenge the idea of applying business acumen to creating social value. Even Boards are sometimes averse to applying the same principles of effectiveness and efficiency to a foundation that they would to a commercial entity. Such reticence continues to stymie the performance of the sector, allowing foundations to continue to report input rather than output and to gloss over things that didn’t work. However, the tide is turning as more and more philanthropists look for new models and new ways of delivering more impact and recognise that learning through failure is a powerful tool for driving greater accountability.
At Emirates Foundation we publicly acknowledge that the sheer size and diversity of our earlier portfolio was significantly diluting our impact and ability to create sustainable outcomes. With our new operational Venture Philanthropy model, where we focus on only one area, we are already seeing a difference in terms of measurable outputs – over 40,000 youth in the UAE have been impacted by our programmes.
Accountability and transparency lie at the heart of this new sectoral change. A step-change in both is moving philanthropy very much in line with global trends and the global demands of a twenty-first century where connectivity and a digital revolution kill opacity. It could also render the social impact of philanthropy much greater and more sustainable. Ultimately, foundations have a significant and growing potential to make a very strong contribution to some of the world’s most pressing social challenges. The sheer size of the philanthropic capital market means it can’t be ignored. With a new philanthropic paradigm that embraces efficiency and openness, perhaps emulated to some extent by the formal development sector itself, the MDGs and their reinvention, the Sustainable Development Goals that will replace them in 2015, might seem much easier to achieve.
Clare Woodcraft-Scott is CEO of Emirates Foundation and oversaw its transition from grant-making to venture philanthropy. She has 20 years’ experience in sustainable socio-economic development as a practitioner, journalist and corporate executive. She was formerly Deputy Director of Shell Foundation which invests in social enterprises and earlier ran Shell’s social investment portfolio in the Middle East and North Africa. She previously headed Visa International’s public affairs in emerging markets and worked in Palestine for various development agencies.
Images used courtesy of the Emirates Foundation.