How funders are fighting philanthropy that is 'top down, closed door, expert driven'

A scene from the session “Is philanthropy the solution or part of the problem?,” moderated by Devex reporter Catherine Cheney (left) at the 2019 Skoll World Forum. Photo by: Skoll World Forum

OXFORD, England — Winning the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2009 has opened many doors for VisionSpring in the decade since, according to Ella Gudwin, president of the organization that focuses on accelerating the uptake for eyeglasses in emerging markets.

In fact, each of the awards VisionSpring has won unlocks new resources, expertise, and networks, while serving as a shortcut for trust from donors, she said in a panel at the Skoll World Forum last week.

The field of philanthropy has come under scrutiny over the past year, driven in part by books such as “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” One of those criticisms is that those engaged in philanthropy are far removed from — and lack the experience and perspective of — the people most directly impacted by the problems they are trying to help solve.

“This is really thinking about who has power, how do we give it away, how do we give back.”

— Dar Vanderbeck, chief innovation officer, CARE

Many leaders are now thinking about ways to make the shift from funding from afar to supporting local solutions.

This year’s Skoll World Forum saw a number of funders support fellows from developing countries to attend the conference. The ELMA Philanthropies, supporting organizations focused on improving the lives of children in Africa, helped African leaders from their portfolio to attend, partly in the hopes of connecting them with other donors, said Robyn Calder, executive director.

“It is important to have a tiered strategy,” Calder said. “We do have an obsession with scale and system change. That is what most of our grants are. But you have to do that and also support the grassroots.”

While it may be a challenge to get massive scale by investing in a single, community-based organization, frameworks for replication can come from supporting a range of community-based organizations — and each of them is likely more cost-effective than organizations based elsewhere working in Africa, she said.

ELMA is a partner in The Audacious Project, which is committed to social change at scale, and announced more than $280 million for eight projects this week.

“Proximity to these issues is of paramount importance,” said Anna Verghese, executive director of The Audacious Project.

The philanthropic collaborative, which also includes Jeff Skoll, founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation, shifted its strategy this year, moving from a private curatorial process to an open nomination process resulting in 1,500 submissions.

Co-Impact went through a similar shift this year by opening up its second round of systems change grants.

“It is a very different thing when somebody who is from the global south, who is based there, is leading an effort that is internationally connected, and open to ideas from around the world, than someone from the north helicoptering in and trying to make change happen,” said Rakesh Rajani, vice president of programs at Co-Impact.

But the key thing Co-Impact looks for in the leaders it supports is systematically and meaningfully listening to the people they are trying to help, he said.

Community entrepreneurship, community philanthropy

Noah Nasiali started the Africa Farmers Club to bring farmers together online. He was one of five leaders Facebook selected for $1 million grants as part of its Facebook Community Leadership Program. Nasiali said he will use the money to create a training center for farmers.

“These leaders are the answer to this need for radical listening,” said Deepti Doshi, who leads an effort at Facebook that is focused on building a new field she describes as community entrepreneurship. “Anytime there is a third party intervention, there is a limit to listening.” 

Community entrepreneurship has a different theory of change than social entrepreneurship, she said. Using tools such as Facebook, these leaders can bring people together, then allow groups to determine the best solutions for them. That is in contrast to the model of first developing a solution, then building the demand for that product or service, she said.

 “Anytime there is a third party intervention, there is a limit to listening.”

— Deepti Doshi, Facebook

While community entrepreneurship might be a new term, community philanthropy has been used to capture the shift of power into the hands of local leadership. Last month, the Global Fund for Community Foundations released a report on recommendations for funders to support community-led development.

Tips included shifting from “we know best” to “communities know what is best for them,” going from siloed thinking to acknowledging the complexity of social change, and shifting from the idea of “empowering communities” to “investing in communities.”

Seeing and giving power

Philanthropy is in a moment of reckoning, in part because it is “top down, closed door, and expert driven,” as Edgar Villanueva, author of “Decolonizing Wealth” and a speaker at the Skoll World Forum, put it. New models are building solutions to these problems into their design.

For example, at the forum, CARE soft launched Embark, a collective of philanthropists supporting gender justice initiatives.

One of the key pillars of the program is to “solve problems in proximity,” since “the people impacted by poverty and oppression are best placed to create innovative, sustainable solutions,” according to the recently launched website for the initiative.

Marilia Bezerra, managing partner at CARE Enterprises, said she believes the philanthropic sector needs to see who has power and who does not in the systems they are looking to transform, in order to give up power. And she thinks Embark is a way philanthropists can do this in partnership with an NGO working in these contexts.

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice, so this is really thinking about who has power, how do we give it away, how do we give back in a way, not in the paradigm of doing well by doing good,” said Dar Vanderbeck, the chief innovation officer at CARE who will lead this effort within the NGO.

Winning hearts, minds, and wallets

Over the past decade, the percentage of African led organizations in the Segal Family Foundation has increased from 0% to 58%.

Still, locally led organizations have not grown as quickly as their foreign-led counterparts, due to a range of barriers to entry they face, said Andy Bryant, executive director at the Segal foundation.

When he tries to convince funders to support African founders, their responses range from concerns about logistics, like whether they can make tax-exempt donations to nonprofits based outside the United States, to questions like: “How do I know I can trust them?”

“Our challenge is to win some hearts and minds and wallets and move more resources to local actors that we think oftentimes have more sustainable, more impactful, and certainly more just solutions for the communities they serve and come from,” he said.

Sometimes, U.S. funders say they can only fund 501c3s because they need to be able to deliver grants in a  tax-exempt manner. So Bryant tells them about NGOsource, which offers equivalency determinations for $1,500 so that funders can make tax-exempt donations.

Other options include fiscal sponsorship, which not only allows for tax-exempt donations but also often takes care of back-office administration, Bryant said. Other solutions aren’t as straightforward, and these tensions emerged in a session Bryant moderated at Skoll.

Participants were asked to identify the challenges of funding local organizations, changes that donors and doers can make to balance power in partnerships, and ways to improve feedback mechanisms. When they reported back, they shared insights, including how invite-only grants keep people from getting in front of someone on the other side of the world, or how funders who are far removed from the work they support cannot possibly understand what the priorities should be.

Western donors can take steps to address this, but the other key is to promote “homegrown philanthropy,” as the African Philanthropy Forum phrases it.

Deval Sanghavi, co-founder of Dasra in India, spoke at the forum about the urgency of developing local philanthropy from within the country, as India is set to become a middle-income country in the next 10 years.

Drawing on his background in investment banking, he said: “It’s smarter to be closer to your investees than your investors.”

Update, April 19, 2019: This article has been updated to correct the title of Edgar Villanueva's book.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.