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How Private Philanthropies Can Maximize Their Impacts

philanthropy and society book cover
Philanthropy and Society comes out on March 6. Pre-order a copy here.

Private philanthropies have a unique opportunity to help solve the world’s most pressing problems and encourage sustainable development. But what’s the best way to ensure that grants actually end up making a difference? In his new book, Philanthropy and Society, Earth Institute research scholar David J. Maurrasse examines the role of philanthropic institutions in shaping and bettering the communities they serve, and identifies tactics that work best. In the post below, Maurrasse describes a few case studies that highlight how equity, inclusivity, accountability, transparency, and sustainable long-term support are key to generating real-world impacts.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), introduced in 2015, form a framework for action targeting urgent social issues such as poverty, health, education, and climate change, that require global collaboration. The United Nations developed the SDGs to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Not only were the SDGs designed to accomplish what the MDGs could not, but the goals also increased in number, from 8 to 17. This expansion represents a more comprehensive commitment to the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

One important addition to the SDGs is specific attention, in Goal 17, to the collaborative processes and partnerships required in order to address these pressing matters. Numerous actors, public and private, hold stake in these partnerships, contributing various resources and unique approaches towards development. It is important to leverage both public and private resources to work toward the SDGs. Philanthropic organizations are one important category of private resources, and they typically include strategies and programs targeting the very issues the SDGs were created to address.

Public scrutiny of philanthropy has increased recently, suggesting that foundations, despite their stated intentions, are often not sufficiently improving health, education, the environment, poverty or other concerns. Indeed, the billions of dollars in private philanthropy really aren’t enough to stimulate substantial measurable change alone. But, coupled with the right mix of other partners, philanthropy’s resources could have a greater impact. A significant consideration for this field is how philanthropists and foundations distribute their funds. One dimension of this process is how they engage external parties, particularly the populations most adversely affected by SDGs.

Philanthropy and Society examines the approaches of multiple institutions to gain insight into how private philanthropies may uniquely contribute to achieving the SDGs. These foundational approaches broadly incorporate systemic and inclusive transformation of operations. Focuses include addressing the intersection between social topics and equity issues, considerations of institutional accountability and transparency, and the development of sustainable long-term support.

Some foundations have been deeply reflecting on their role as philanthropic institutions, and exploring various ways to strengthen their collaboration with the populations that would stand the most to gain from the successful achievement of the SDGs. For example, the Lankelly Chase Foundation, based in the UK, has focused its efforts on institutional restructuring and a commitment to inclusion. Through this process, Lankelly Chase has changed the balance of decision-making regarding grantmaking, focusing on learning from communities and considering grantees as partners instead of beneficiaries. The aim is to create networks of organizations and people by emphasizing communities and assisting these localities that the foundation serves to initiate programs. This strategy facilitates dialogue and collaboration that can surface the intricacies of challenges that confront communities. Thus, Lankelly Chase works to determine the types of actions required to aid localities.

By emphasizing the people within beneficiary communities and viewing them as assets within the processes, the foundation’s strategy empowers communities to share in decision-making, accountability, and participation. Consequently, trust and collaboration are formed and varying voices can be included in shaping the priorities of the foundation through contextual insight and power-sharing. With this commitment to inclusion comes a movement towards equity. Lankelly Chase has designed its relationships with communities so that feedback informs how the foundation should continue its work. With its place-based approach, Lankelly Chase is able to create sustainable partnerships and understand the ways in which multiple issues and actors interact to influence the livelihoods of disadvantaged populations.

The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is another philanthropic institution propelled by its adaptability to community experiences. Its main strategies include elevating community-supportive institutions, policy change, and civic engagement. The foundation focuses on the process of building trust with communities, understanding the importance of community context in building an authentic understanding of beneficiaries. As a result, the foundation is able to foster long-term partnerships with grantees and guarantee representation from the most marginalized communities for strategy development. Through its inclusive approach, the foundation helps to create and sustain networks, make long-term unrestricted grants, leverage funds, and influence local policy. The foundation attempts to work grassroots and “grass-tops,” having direct communication with public officials and other influential leaders that can internally change systems. The philanthropy focuses on the interests of disenfranchised communities, harnessing partnerships for action to improve people and places that have been historically impoverished and powerless. In understanding the systemic ways that communities are affected, the foundation can implement multiple approaches to influence policy, voting rights, and other issues affecting lower income communities.

The Conrad Hilton Foundation specifically incorporates a SDG Partnership Platform into its institutional approach. The foundation is able to work within an existing framework through national governments’ SDG commitments and collaborate for feedback from local constituents to best inform long-term work. Through international grantmaking, the foundation can work with multiple stakeholders to inform its strategies and ensure that they are realized, while also building the capacity of the local government. Conrad Hilton aims to gain awareness of the importance of representing diverse populations through community perspectives and to address the fundamental root causes of inequities. Programmatically, the philanthropy works with local persons who are familiar with local socioeconomic contexts and relinquishes programming to local organizations. Diversity and inclusion are therefore incorporated practically and systematically into sustainable development operations.

Encompassing a different model of philanthropy in the context of developing countries, TrustAfrica is a foundation by and for Africa. Its core values include collaboration among African institutions, the formation of long-term grantee relationships, and the forging of closer ties with the African diaspora to strengthen global alliances. To reach these goals, TrustAfrica structures itself through informality, giving directly to a person or persons rather than through an incorporated organization, therefore enhancing transparency. The foundation works to raise money from African sources — avoiding external agendas — funding organizations all over the African continent. Regarding institutional structure, all staff have lived experiences in Africa, and the philanthropy is organized for limited overhead. Funds can hence exist within the broader organization.

TrustAfrica aims to build capacity and harness African resources for democracy and equitable development in order to foster African enterprise and shared prosperity. Services are mainly given to impoverished communities. The emphasis on democracy-building drives to the core of inclusivity by way of aiming to involve broader populations in governance. Through the inclusion of African voices, TrustAfrica focuses on leveraging new and traditional forms of African philanthropy in order to advance democracy and development, minimize external donor reliance, and enhance community engagement.

These are just a few foundations that are employing collaborative processes that can enhance their understanding of external populations. Through this engagement, foundations gain insights that can shape their approaches to partnering with constituent populations to share decision making. The experiences of these foundations highlight how progress towards sustainable development depends on process. How foundations engage constituencies impacted by SDGs is another important dimension of collaborative process that will have to be understood in order to effectively address the most pressing issues of our times. Each of these institutions have engaged in holistic institutional change, recognizing the importance of locality, power dynamics, and broad systemic transformation. These processes of private philanthropies can address multiple issues, numerous types of issues, and novel ways of considering how to approach challenges. When philanthropies are inclusively strategic in their goals, they can broaden conceptions of ways to shape programmatic directions and discover ways to involve the specific populations that they hope to impact.

Through inclusive process development, private philanthropies can work more closely with populations that are most impacted by inequities and evaluate how they, as institutions, can be most useful. These changes toward more community-centric and strategic philanthropic processes mark a movement toward a different type of institution which transcends traditional philanthropic practice.

In addition to being a research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, David Maurrasse is the president and founder of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing advice and research to strengthen philanthropy and innovative cross-sector partnerships to address some of today’s most pressing social concerns.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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