Q&A: Rajiv Shah on the Rockefeller Foundation's new priorities and strategies

Rajiv Shah, president at the Rockefeller Foundation. Photo by: Boris Baldinger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — Rajiv Shah, president at the Rockefeller Foundation, was at the recent Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, California, to talk about Opportunity Zones — an effort to bring billions of dollars in new investment to communities across the United States.

“We’re here at SOCAP because there are almost 4,000 people gathered here to think about how capitalism can help achieve social goals,” he said.

Shah said the most important subset of the impact investing field, which the Rockefeller Foundation has helped to build and a number of foundations are joining, is when large-scale investment institutions look for opportunities to achieve both financial returns and social outcomes.

Shah spoke with Devex about the foundation’s new areas of focus, its increased emphasis on data and collaboration, and ways to draw more commercial investment to international development priorities.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Via Twitter

Can you tell us about your new priorities at the Rockefeller Foundation and what changes you have made internally to pursue those priorities? 

The Rockefeller Foundation has had a century-long commitment to using science-driven philanthropy and we are continuing that tradition going forward.

In order to refocus the foundation on the fundamentals of human well-being, and programs that are designed to achieve results for vulnerable children and families around the world, we have restructured ourselves around the core topics of health, food, power, jobs, and cities.

“Success or failure in achieving the SDGs will really be about whether we can motivate more private investment to tackle global challenges.”

— Rajiv Shah, president, the Rockefeller Foundation

We’ve recruited and hired outstanding technical and scientific leaders who have a track record of proven success to lead our efforts. For example, our global health effort ,which will focus on bringing data analytics to public health around the world, is led by Dr. Naveen Rao. He is an extraordinary leader who helped create Merck for Mothers, and has been widely respected for many decades globally.

You’ve been working for the past year and a half to hire new leaders and develop these new initiatives. Many of them are heavy on use of data analytics. Can you tell me more about how data fits into your approach? 

Data analytics and data-driven strategies are essential to any successful effort to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Certainly in our case, we will make significant investments in bringing modern capabilities around predictive analytics and data visualization to the task of making sure African farmers can produce more food and nutrition, of identifying latent demand for power and electricity among populations that currently don’t have access to electricity, and to the mission of ending the reality that 6 million children will die this year, mostly of preventable causes.

Today, we’re on a path where 52 countries will fail to achieve the health SDGs. We think we can enable others to turn that around by accelerating progress using data-driven precision public health strategies. These will use scarce resources more effectively to save mothers’ and children’s lives from preventable death.

What are some of the challenges you anticipate in achieving your goals and any new strategies to try and address them?

When we look at what we’re trying to achieve, especially in quantitative terms, too many nations are not on track to achieve those goals.

To achieve progress, we really do need to bend the curve of performance. Our strategy has always been investing in science, technology, and innovation, and that’s ultimately how you get to be more productive and more effective at saving lives.

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We have put a lot of effort into what we call collaborative philanthropy. We created a fund we call the Co-Impact initiative that allows new and established philanthropists to work together to have a premier platform for international giving. The aim is to deliver global development outcomes in a way that is efficient and high return on investment.

Partnership is what delivers success over time at scale — so we’re willing to do the hard work now to find partners who really can be with us for 10-20 years to make sure that we can all be successful together.

While blended capital is a major focus at SOCAP, commercial players seem to be missing from many of these conversations. I’m curious what you think will be needed to get them actively engaged in investing to achieve the SDGs.

Now more than ever, we need capital from all partners to achieve the SDGs.

Public-sector investments in development have been relatively flat over the last few years, and are likely to remain that way. So success or failure in achieving the SDGs will really be about whether we can motivate more private investment to tackle global challenges and lift up the people who still suffer from poverty.

Moving the needle to attract private capital for the SDGs will require finding ways for investors to get market-rate returns as they make these type of investments. We have an entire portfolio — the Zero Gap portfolio — of financial instruments that are designed to create either blended finance solutions or other innovative financial mechanisms that help investors get market-rate returns for making investments designed to achieve the SDGs.

Examples range from the immunization bonds that were issued a while back, to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the global fight to make sure every child is vaccinated, to the Exchange Traded Funds that are being marketed at SOCAP this year, and everything in between.

And there should be a lot of experimentation because the world needs these types of solutions.

Update, Oct. 29, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Dr. Naveen Rao helped create Merck for Mothers.

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    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 and innovation 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 from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.