Q&A: Hewlett Foundation's Ruth Levine on how donors can stop 'undercutting chances of success'

Ruth Levine, program director of the Global Development and Population program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Photo by: Steven Purcell / Brookings Institution / CC BY-NC-ND

MENLO PARK, Calif. — Why would Ruth Levine, program director of the Global Development and Population program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, leave what she considers “the best job in global development”?

It’s not entirely up to her. The Hewlett Foundation sets term limits for program staff, and when she started the job, she knew it would be for a maximum of eight years.

Previously, Levine spent nearly a decade at the Center for Global Development. She has also worked with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

During her tenure, she’s most proud of the work the foundation has done to address the “incomplete and gender-biased nature of economic data,” along with the support it’s provided to organizations working on better ways to fully recognize and measure the range of work women do in the world, she told Devex.

Devex caught up with Levine to find out more about changes in her program at the Hewlett Foundation and what she wants to see done differently in the sector overall.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me more about the Hewlett Foundation’s policy to set eight-year term limits?

It was basically instituted in recognition of the reality that this is a pretty relationship-based enterprise. We don't usually do open calls for proposals. We don't have any sort of public style procurement process or selection process. There is a close relationship between grant-making. And that’s true in any foundation.

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The board, and the president at the time that the decision was made, recognized that it's much better to have a kind of refreshed view, a new perspective, not a dramatic overturning of what came before, but an opportunity on a regular basis for new ideas to come in and new relationships to be built. So that’s the practice. And you know, we go through lots and lots of these painful goodbyes. I’ve said goodbye to lots of wonderful program officers. But also each person brings lots of great stuff with them.

It has also permitted the Hewlett Foundation to much more quickly engage in the diversity agenda with respect to staff. So even during my eight years here, the number of people from just a whole range of different backgrounds has just dramatically increased. There are these predictable opportunities to bring in new people.

More donors are recognizing the value of working with in-country civil society organizations, but the business model of international development makes that difficult. Can you expand on how you are handling it?

The short-term nature of the funding, the fact that the agendas are set at some level far above the level of the community or the country, the reporting and financial tracking requirements — all of those things which are really pronounced for bilateral, donor-funded projects and are also present in foundation-funded projects.

Those are characteristics of the aid business, whether it be bilateral donors or foundations, really disadvantage relatively small in-country CSOs.

One of the things that we've done is carved out money for five-year grants to international NGOs on the condition that they will then establish at least five-year relationships with their in-country civil society partners and that there will be greater transparency about budgets, less onerous reporting, and a few other changes that we hope will partially make things a little bit better, and foster more success among those CSOs.

But we are just one of the funders. Then the rest of the money is coming from other donors or foundations that could have a narrower scope to the funding and shorter timeframe and so forth.

That is a real challenge for the field. We're just consistently undercutting our own chances of success by the way we do our work. And I don't quite know what to do about that.

Coming from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley, how did you adjust to some of the more West Coast ways of working on development challenges?

The West Coast thing was a liability. I was not interested in moving to California. Now that I'm here, I'm not interested in leaving California. From the beginning, it’s opened my eyes to how parochial the conversation about development and probably everything else in Washington really is, and how fixated it is around the U.S. development enterprise and multilateral development banks.

First of all, I was just kind of overwhelmed with the number of new ideas and fresh perspectives. Many of them didn't actually make a lot of sense to me — but at least I was being exposed to new ideas. Some did make a lot of sense to me. So for example, we’ve done a lot of work during my time here on integrating human-centered design into some of our work on reproductive health services, to very good ends.

What would you highlight as the major changes in your program over the past eight years?

One area we’ve launched is "women’s economic empowerment,” which is a complement to our decades-long commitment to reproductive health and rights. It's a pretty small grant portfolio, but a really an exciting one because it's very much about connecting gender considerations to macroeconomic policy. So it’s an unusual area for a foundation or funder.

Most foundations that work on women's economic empowerment are doing microfinance or job training or related work on financial inclusion. And our focus is really very much on: What are the gender dimensions of tax and social protection and labor policies?

One co-funder we’re really excited about is a group called Echidna Giving. It is here on the peninsula and one of its areas of interest is on early childhood development. We are starting to team up with it on looking at the issue of child care and government-subsidized child care. This issue turns out to be one of the primary things you have to solve for, for women’s economic empowerment — and paid childcare often employs women and often not in great conditions so it’s a really important issue to think through.

The other area we’ve built out during my time here has been a portfolio of grants called evidence-informed policymaking. So for example, we support groups such as IDinsight that have a model of working very closely with government ministries on high profile programs for which better evidence can help make successful.

If you could do this over again, what would you do differently?

What I wish I had known is how fundamental to sustained social change it is to support the capacity of self-led organizations. The example will always come to mind for me is a group called Women in Informal Employment, or WIEGO, which helps informal workers organize. So these are street vendors, waste pickers, and domestic workers.

WIEGO helps them organize and advocate within its own cities and countries and even in the halls of the United Nations and the International Labor Organization for its rights. And in two decades or more working in international development, I had literally never been exposed to groups like that.

It and other grantees really opened a window for me of how important it is to support groups who are comprised of people who are fighting and working on behalf of themselves and their children as opposed to the typical NGO, who are all filled with good-hearted people like me, working on behalf of people who are in very different circumstances.

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.